Illinois Public Media News
The University of Illinois will forgo much of a contract agreed to with consultants for its strategic planning process in light of budget problems.
The news comes as members of the U of I's Campus Faculty Association question the $450,000 contract with Kokomo-based Renewal and Transformation Group, or RTG, agreed to early this year. University Spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the group will complete reviews that are on the table, but very little of that amount will be spent. The university has already paid more than $1 million of an agreement with RTG that dates back to 2006. CFA President and History Professor Megan McLaughlin says the U of I's cutting ties with the consultant justifies her suspicion that the contract wasn't needed in the first place. But she says the group isn't dropping its Freedom of Information request to learn what consultants have done for the U of I thus far.
"This is one consultant - there are many of them out there.' said McLaughlin. "There's a consultant firm, for example, involved in the new president's search... and a lot of other activities on campus. So we want to know what's going on with those as well." McLaughlin says administrators are providing little information on what these dollars went for when there are already people at the U of I capable of planning a long-range vision for the Urbana campus. The CFA contends around 1,000 faculty members would have been spared their 4 furlough days had the U of I not spent this money. The faculty group also says consultant fees would have paid the salaries of about 100 teaching assistants for a year.
Offers of buyouts are going out to more than 640 University of Illinois employees.
The Urbana campus began offering its voluntary separation packages over the winter to academic professional employees, with faculty being offered early retirement. This week employees who applied are finding out if their offers have been accepted - they'll be given contracts to sign within 30 days, and they'd leave their jobs by August. In exchange, they'd get 6 months' salary as an incentive.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says of the nearly 800 applicants, about 3/4 have been given the option to leave. "The goal of the program was to identify as many people as possible who were interested in retiring or separating from the university, willing to do that, and being able to reorganize, restructure in those given departments, to streamline a little bit," Kaler said.
Kaler says 483 academic professional employees have been approved to take buyouts if they want them. "Of those 483 that were approved, 211 of those positions will be refilled but at lower salaries. 272 of those positions will be eliminated."
Another 153 faculty members have been approved for early retirement, with 75 of those positions eliminated.
Kaler says if all employees leave as expected, the program will save the U of I about $25 million a year. She says the announcement was delayed by about a month because of the high number of applicants.
Champaign's City Council is reviewing the next fiscal year's budget and preparing for changes in service levels.
The proposed cuts include eliminating six vacant positions, and reducing public works crews and neighborhood services. City Manager Steve Carter says residents have likely not noticed the cuts so far, but that may not be the case next year. "I think we've done a good job in our reductions so far that I don't think people so far have noticed much of a difference," Carter said. "But I think with this next round of reductions, they'll be starting to see some of that. You know, in each area there's just a little bit of a fall off in terms of the level of service we're providing."
The budget, presented by Carter and Champaign city finance director Richard Schnuer at a study session after Tuesday's city council meeting, includes two-point-five million dollars in spending cuts. These cuts are less than half of the six million dollars cut from last year's budget.
The budget cuts are necessary in part because the city is not expecting any increase in sales or income taxes. Sales tax alone is the largest source of revenue for the city, making up 31% of total revenue, followed by property tax at 24%.
The council will work with the City Manager's office to review the budget in detail this month. A vote to adopt the budget will be in June.
A state senator who hopes to take the University of Illinois to task for its spending was forced to cancel a hearing on the subject after none of the school's trustees showed up.
Sen. Martin Sandoval says trustees are irresponsible for not attending his hearing in Springfield on Tuesday. Members of the board of trustees oversee the University of Illinois' three campuses.
The Chicago Democrat says trustees chairman Christopher Kennedy has asked to meet with him Thursday.
Sandoval last week said he wants to hold hearings on university spending and tuition increase.
Interim university President Stanley Ikenberry has said he will ask trustees to OK a 9.5 percent tuition increase for the next school year.
State funding problems have prompted two agencies that deal with Champaign County women in crisis to consider consolidating.
A Woman's Fund shelters victims of domestic violence and their children. In July, it and the foundation that funds it expect to be acquired by The Center for Women in Transition, which helps homeless women and children. Last fall A Woman's Fund was almost forced to close when state government payments were backlogged.
But now the group's human resources director, Tara Bossert, says it will be part of a more financially-stable agency, and the merger should be a good fit.
"The services that we provide and the services that the Center for Women in Transition provide are different, yet a lot of our clients overlap and a lot of those clients utilize both services," Bossert said. "So as far as the ease of using those services, we'll just become a better situation for a lot of our clients."
John Sullivan, who directs the Center for Women in Transition, says both agencies serve slightly different purposes, so a consolidation should not lead to job losses.
"The whole goal is to maintain services and make sure domestic violence services remain in our community," said Sullivan. "The staff that are providing those services at the moment, of course we want to keep them on. There may be savings in terms of administration. On the other hand, since we're adding more services, we're going to have to expand our administration."
Still, Sullivan says social service providers in general will see tough times over the next couple of years. He says merger discussions have taken place for about six months, since A Woman's Fund was threatened with the closure.
A monthly gauge of the Illinois economy has backtracked after four months of improvement.
The University of Illinois Flash Index uses state tax revenue figures each month to measure economic performance. For April, the index was set at 91, down .08 from the month before. The index was still far from the 100 level that separates economic growth from contraction. It's also fallen back to its lowest level since last November, though it's still above the September figure that marked the low point of the current recession.
The index's author, U of I economist Fred Giertz, says Illinois's unemployment rate still hasn't followed signs of a national economic recovery. But he also thinks the April index may have been affected by an abnormal drop in the state's corporate tax intake in March, saying that might be a result of timing rather than a true drop.
The city of Champaign isn't planning any major construction projects or improvements in the next budget year - but it doesn't plan any layoffs either.
However, the city still expects revenue to fall about $3.5 million short of needs, so it's cut about two and a half million dollars from the proposal for fiscal year 2011. That's not as deep as the six million dollars cut last year, but Champaign finance director Richard Schnuer says none of those cuts are being restored either.
"It's been a difficult year for us as well as for people in the community who are suffering the impacts," Schnuer said. "We've sure tried to continue to provide the services that contribute to the high quality of life in the city. And we hope that we did make those choices -- if not, we're happy to hear from people."
The proposed cuts in the $67 million general fund budget mainly involve jobs that won't be filled once current employees retire or leave.
The Champaign city council gets its first formal look at the budget Tuesday night - it'll also be available at the city building and the Champaign Public library.
Gov. Pat Quinn is proposing legislation that he says would offer tax relief to millions of Illinois property owners.
Quinn plans to present the Homeowner's Property Tax Relief Initiative of 2010 to the General Assembly this week.
The legislation would create a Taxpayer Action Board modeled after the statewide utility watchdog that Quinn helped start in the 1980s.
Quinn says the taxpayer board would be independent and nonpartisan. It would help property owners appeal their tax bills and assessments.
The legislation also looks to make it easier for property owners to get information about the assessment process, including comparable sales statistics.
The proposal would also extend a provision that reduces homeowners' taxable value by $20,000.
More delays could be in store for a clean coal technology plant in eastern Illinois. The FutureGen Industrial Alliance is still negotiating finances with the state, dragging out a decision by the US Department of Energy on whether to build the plant in Mattoon.
Illinois Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin says the agency is extending its study of the experimental plant.
"I said that the Secretary of Energy had to decide this project on it's merits and I wanted him to do that," Durbin said over the weekend in Springfield. "I think we've made a good strong case, but we don't take anything more granted."
Durbin, the Majority Whip, says he's optimistic the plant will be built.
The Energy Department had planned to announce by now whether to go forward, but the agency has decided to keep studying the alliance's plans another 60 days.
If built, FutureGen would be the worlds' first zero emissions coal-fired power plant. Carbon dioxide created from burning coal would be stored underground. The project would create thousands of construction jobs.
Optimism remains that construction on the long-delayed FutureGen power plant will get the federal government's okay soon.
In the meantime, local officials can do little more than watch and wait for a decision from the Energy Department. It's in talks with corporate members of the FutureGen Alliance who want to get the $1.8 billion dollar coal-to-energy plant built and operating near Mattoon.
Angela Griffin heads the economic development group Coles Together. "As far as we know they're still in negotiations," Griffin said. "There's still a lot of details to be worked out with the agreement going forward, and they're not at liberty at this point to talk about those."
But Griffin says she and others in the Mattoon area are being kept up to date on the talks, even if she doesn't know the details. Griffin wouldn't estimate when the government and the Alliance can reach a conclusion.
She does say that once that agreement takes place, the construction phase will have a big impact on Mattoon. She says plant developers expect to keep cement plants within a 100-mile radius of FutureGen busy as they drill the initial wells for the plant's carbon-sequestration unit.
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