Illinois Public Media News
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.
A Web site detailing Ilinois' financial outlook is now up and running. Governor Pat Quinn's office unveiled the site Wednesday.
The Website, budget.illinois.gov, opens with a video from the Governor's budget director ... David Vaught, who asks viewers, "Would you cut money from education and give more to health care? Or would reduce spending to both and spend more on road construction? Would you raise taxes? And by how much?"
Commenters can answer those questions ... or give other suggestions ... in a public comment section.
Vaught says within the first two hours ... about 250 people had done so. That's despite criticism that the graphs and figures don't make it easy enough for the average person to understand.
The site doesn't get into much detail about what the governor is planning. That will come March 10th, when Quinn gives his annual budget address.
But what it does include is telling. A reading of one table shows that the governor will suggest cutting more than two billion dollars in the next budget. Education ... from kindergarten to universities ... will have funding reduced, as well as public safety, economic development, and human services.
Vaught says it's dire, but realistic ... and says it still leaves Illinois with an 11 and a half billion dollars deficit.
Vaught says cuts will occur with or without a tax increase.
A series of ad hoc committees have started the arduous task of identifying areas on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus that might find ways to make cuts or even raise some revenue.
'Stewarding Excellence at Illinois' is expected to last several months. One of the committees has already identified four areas for evaluation due to the higher education funding crisis. Graduate College Dean Deba Dutta chairs the Campus Steering Committee. He says his group is meeting twice a week, and expects to identify more areas over the next several months. "And we'll keep on doing this until we, as a campus, feel that we have looked everything that needs to be looked at," says Dutta. "I mean that's the general feeling. I can't say that there's going to be 15 projects, or 35 projects. But we have in this process, we have a lot of involvement of faculty, students, and staff."
The first four areas under review are the Institute of Aviation, Information Technology, The Office of Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, and Allocation of undergraduate scholarships. Dutta says these areas are more administrative in nature, but he stresses that no cuts or other changes will be decided for some time. Faculty teams assigned to each of these projects will look at charge letters from U of I administrators. "We're not to limit them to think, ok, do this or do that," says Dutta. "Just trying to give an idea to consult with stakeholders, look at the value, how it aligns with the institution, and several other criteria that are spelled out on the web site.
A section of Bunge North America's massive downtown Danville facility will close in two months.
About 100 employees will face layoffs when the plant's soybean processing operation comes to an end. Bunge spokeswoman Deb Seidell says the Danville site doesn't have the soy-oil refining facility that newer plants have.
"When you crush the soybeans and you get the protein meal and you get the oil, generally that oil needs to be further processed before it can go into the food stream," Seidell said. "From Danville it has to be trucked or sent by rail somewhere else to be refined because there's not a refinery attached to Danville."
But Seidell says there are no plans to build that refinery because the capacity for processing soybeans is outstripping demand. She says management and staff employees will receive outplacement assistance and severance while Bunge will negotiate with unions over the impact on other employees.
Bunge plans to keep its soy and corn elevators and dry corn mill open - they employ about 185 workers.
While one area county has gotten out of nursing home operations, the Champaign County Nursing Home appears to have turned a corner after a number of financial problems.
A week from today, Livingston Manor in Pontiac will have a new operator. Livingston County Board Chairman Bill Fairfield says while the level of care there is good, he says the facilities are nearly 50 years old, with one bathroom per wing. As a result, Fairfield says it's hard to find new patients. Livingston Manor has about 35 residents now, with 122 beds.
County officials have spent the last couple of years working with the non-profit Good Samaritan Home of Flanagan to assume operations at the Pontiac home. And by September 2011, Fairfield says Good Samaritan will have a new facility built, with the help of an economic development grant from the county.
"They have a couple of ideas on property, which would be somewhere in the vicinity of St. James Hospital in Pontiac, to build a new facility," said Fairfield. "And I believe that once they have a facility that is modern, with a private bath and all, that you will see the census rise."
Census has not been a problem of late at Champaign County's nursing home. Mike Scavatto is president of Management Performance Associates, the St. Louis based group that's helping with management of home. He's aiming for an average census of about 195 patients, and they're close to it now. But there's also been an increase in private pay residents, a lower percentage of them on Medicaid, and less contract nursing. But Scavatto says there are other goals in mind.
"We're very interested in expanding our services in dementia and doing more with rehabilitation. And I think those are the two key services that will help us out," said Scavotto.
The Champaign County Nursing Home closed out 2008 with a one-point-8 million dollar loss. Scavatto expects losses from 2009 to show a figure closer to 150-thousand dollars.
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