As unemployment climbs and economic hard times worsen for many in Champaign County, area churches are finding it difficult to keep up with the need. Shelley Smithson reports as part of a joint project confronting poverty in the area.
Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling Thursday in a taxation case that could affect dozens of not-for-profit hospitals in Illinois.
The case involves Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana. In 2004 it lost its property tax exempt status because county officials determined the hospital did not provide enough charitable care. State revenue officials agreed, but an appeals court reversed the lower court's decision against Provena. At issue is whether Provena still owes local governments more than a million dollars in property taxes a year since the initial decision. The case is on the high court's list of decisions to be released Thursday - both sides argued before the justices last September.
The chairman of the University of Illinois' Board of Trustees says the state budget unveiled by Governor Pat Quinn calls into question Illinois' commitment to higher education.
Chairman Christopher Kennedy says the $697 million that the budget provides the U of I for the next fiscal year makes it difficult for the school to compete when hiring faculty. "There's some question as to whether or not this state takes higher ed as seriously as do other states," says Kennedy. "And if we continue to underfund, if we continue to decrease the funding, if we continue to not meet the obligations that the state has declared that they would meet to these institutions of higher ed.. people will simply not move to Illinois to take those leadership positions." Kennedy addressed Wednesday's U of I Trustees meeting as Quinn unveiled the budget in Springfield. The $697 million appropriation is $45 million less than the state promised this year - that amount coming through one-time federal stimulus dollars. The state now owes the U of I about $500 million - more than that when including $28 million in yet unpaid student assistance through the Monetary Awards Program, or MAP grants.
U of I Interim President Stanley Ikenberry says the university may seek authority from the legislature to borrow money, but will only do it as a last resort. He has yet to see how much Governor Pat Quinn's budget proposal for a 1% income tax hike would generate for colleges and universities. But Ikenberry called the idea a step forward towards Illinois' financial crisis. On a positive note, Ikenberry says the U of I is becoming more self-reliant through private fundraising. He says the University of Illinois Foundation has raised more than 80% towards its $2.25 billion goal in its 'Brilliant Futures' campaign.
Gov. Pat Quinn says state government is in a battle against a massive budget deficit and it's a battle the state can't afford to lose.
In a speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, the Democratic governor said the deficit in the upcoming year will reach $13 billion. Quinn says the state has to get rid of that deficit and strengthen state finances or pay the prices for years to come. He's calling for more than $2 billion in budget cuts, including major cuts to education.
Quinn specifically rejects the idea of across-the-board cuts, which have been proposed by his Republican opponent for governor. He calls that a "chain saw'' approach.
The group that represents Illinois consumers in utility rate cases says Ameren's proposed rate hike shouldn't go forth - in fact, it claims the utility should be cutting its customers' rates.
The Citizens Utility Board has been collecting petition signatures against a proposed $130 million rate hike - it would affect what Ameren charges to deliver power and natural gas, which makes up about a third of the typical homeowner's utility bill.
CUB director David Kolata contends that Ameren's request is way too high considering the utility's healthy profits and the sluggish economy. He also takes issue with Ameren's plans to ask for yearly increases.
"We would expect them to file right after this case," Kolata said. "That's why we think it's so important for the ICC to put its foot down here. If there's ever been a time to eliminate one (rate hike), now is the time, and hopefully if it occurs, Ameren will learn its lesson that they can't just keep going to the ICC and raising profits at consumers' expense."
Last month a judge recommended that the state lower the rate hike that Ameren proposed to $56 million. The Illinois Commerce Commission will consider that and CUB's opposition when it votes on the rate hike request - that vote is expected next month.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says even the lowered rate increase wouldn't be enough for the utility to operate. He says Ameren has already lowered its proposal by cutting jobs and delaying construction, and the profitability of the overall Ameren holding company does not accurately reflect the performance of its Illinois utilities.
A plan to move air traffic control radar services from Willard Airport to the Chicago area in five years isn't sitting well with the airport's manager.
Steve Wanzek says he's finding little justification for an FAA proposal to move those employees from Champaign to Elgin. The radar control workers monitor air traffic just outside of the visual range of the tower. Willard is getting an updated control tower... and Wanzek says plans are to leave those facilities out, since the radar employees can perform the same function elsewhere. Willard's radar facilities also serve air traffic in Danville and Decatur. But Wanzek says communicating with radar control in the suburbs means losing local knowledge of the region in the event of an emergency. "We get a pilot that's lost or whatever who might able to identify some kind of landmark," says Wanzek. "Whether it be an interection, or a sign, or something that the local controller might know something about because he lives here, and drives around here, and maybe he's driven by that sign or knows that intersection better than he would know if he was up in Elgin."
Wanzek also says losing those employees will hurt the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation, in which more than 250 students monitor the activites of both radar controllers and air traffic personnel on the ground. The FAA's change could impact 12 to 14 jobs. Agency spokesman Tony Molinaro says the agency continues to analyze the potential cost savings of those salaries, along with building Willard's new tower without a radar room. He also contends that only a handful of Willard employees handle multiple tasks. "The tower controllers would be sending the planes out from the runways and the radar folks are splitting them up or vice versa," says Molinaro. "People are coming from different directions, the radar folks are putting them in line, and then handing them over to the tower folks. Most of those people would stay where they are, cause we still need all those folks to be in the tower itself."
Willard Airport Air Traffic Controller Carl Jensen says he may consider relocating, but wants an explanation from the FAA regarding potential cost savings. He says it makes no sense to give some Willard employees a cost of living increase to do the same job from the Chicago area. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is also opposed to the plan.
A bill giving Illinois school districts the option of cutting their week a day short to save money could clear a House committee next week.
But Republican Sponsor Bill Black of Danville admits its chances for passing the full House are slim. The legislation was proposed last month at the request of a rural school administrator in Black's district. Jamaica School Superintendent Mark Janesky estimates the district would save $100,000 dollars a year by parking buses and leaving lights off for a day, and holding longer school hours on four days. Black says there's a big difference between the state dollars coming into a district like Jamaica and one in an urban area. "Some of these small rural school districts may be faced with the ultimate decision," says Black. "And that's to close, and tuition out their students to a surronding district, to consolidate, which is always an emotional issue, or to form cooperative high schools, which is a law I passed 3 or 4 years ago."
Black says a couple other rural school districts have contacted him with interest in making the change. If the bill passes, Janesky admits a number of issues would come up in a local public hearing, like child care for some parents. "Some of them who have younger kids at home - they rely on older kids to watch them, or they don't have any older children at home to watch them," says Janesky. "They may not like it at all. It may mean that they have to find another way to child care for an extra day. There's going to negatives and positives to how the community is going to react to it."
Black says some fellow lawmakers fear the bill would set a bad precedent, but he notes many school districts, including Danville, used to hold half-day school days because of financial problems. The State Board of Education is drafting an amendment to the bill to be sure it complies with school code. Representative Shane Cultra of Onarga is a co-sponsor of the measure.
Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for the concept of "microfinance". Now a local businessman wants to bring the concept to Champaign-Urbana.
Developer Peter Fox says he's in talks with Yunus to open a branch of Grameen America bank in Champaign-Urbana. He and his wife are pledging $100, 000 toward the project.
"This will be a donation to capitalize the bank", says Fox. "Then after that, we'd raise additional money. Obviously, we would do it on behalf of Grameen and they would set the ground rules. So we're just trying to be the catalyst to get it started --- then they would operate the venture."
Yunus explained the principles of microfinance during a talk Monday nigh at the University of Illinois. It involves the loaning of small amounts of money to people too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans, so they can start or improve their own businesses.
"We run a banking program in New York City right now, in Jackson Hieghts, called Grameen America, exactly the same as we do in Bangladesh, and with the same result", says Yunus. "We have over 2,000 borrowers have there -- all women. Average loan about $1500. Repayment is near 0."
From its start in Bangladesh in the 1980s, Grameen and other organizations offering "microcredit" have spread around the world, including to the U-S. Fox says he's very impressed with Grameen America bank, which currently runs operations in New York, San Francisco and Omaha. He says he'll need to raise another $700,000 to $800,000 for Grameen America to come to Champaign-Urbana.
Yunus' talk at the Univesity of Illinois received a standing ovation from a near-capacity crowd at Foellinger Auditorium on the U of I campus. Afterwards, university Interim President Stanley Ikenberry presented Yunus with the university's Presidential Award and Medallion.
It may be a long, difficult path to recovery for the Illinois economy according to one indicator.
Each month the University of Illinois Flash Index measures tax revenue to give a snapshot of the state's economic performance. Author Fred Giertz says in February the index inched up to 91.5 after two months at 91.2. The reading is well below the dividing line between growth and contraction, and it's been there for the last year and a half.
Giertz says corporate tax receipts in Illinois are showing signs that the recession is breaking, but that hasn't started translating into more employment.
"The stock market has gone up a lot in the last year because of expectations, and businesses are actually starting to do better," Giertz said. "But the problem is that they're not doing as much hiring now because more efficient during the downturn and they don't need as many people to produce the goods (and services) as they did in the past."
Giertz says many observers predict a very slow decline in unemployment rates over the next year, even as the economy improves.
Class sizes will be larger in Danville - and the preschool program would be drastically cut - if proposed budget cuts go into effect.
Administrators propose eliminating 26 teaching positions as well as five teaching assistants and three administrators in the high school and middle schools. The cuts would save close to $2 million. The cuts would also include supplies, textbooks and some extracurricular activities with low participation.
Superintendent Mark Denman says the biggest hit will be in Danville's preschool program, which is not mandatory for districts to offer except for special education.
"I do think the state will come through and provide some level of funding for preschool," Denman said. "But unfortunately, with the laws set by the state with budgeting and notice to staff, we have to make our decisions in March. If we don't, then we're obligated to provide the programs whether the state gives the money or not."
Demnan says 42 teaching and other positions would also be lost until the district is sure the grants that pay for those positions will be continued. He says the state owes District 118 nearly two-and-a-half million dollars in backlogged payments.