Illinois Public Media News
Things could be turning around for an Urbana domestic violence shelter recently forced into layoffs and reduced services.
A Woman's Place has received more than $120,000 in back payments owed by the state. Executive Director Tami Tunnell expects the shelter to remain on an expedited payment schedule for the next six months.
The agency hadn't expected to receive any payments until mid-December. Tunnell says the news came as shock, but she'll take a conservative approach when looking at the months ahead:
"So we're got going to jump and bring everybody back right aw, " Tunnell said. "Hopefully one of these days soon we'll be back to some semblance of normal, but what we'll be looking at is how much we need to set aside in the bank account in case this happens again and the state gets backed up."
A Woman's Place was forced to lay off 10 employees last month, reducing its staff to six. Tunnell says some may be brought back for part-time work around the holidays, but won't do any more hiring until early next year. A Woman's Place had also stopped taking new admissions. It's now serving about 18 families, some staying at the shelter, and others who have found other places to live with the agency's help.
Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes, says her office is getting flooded with requests each day from various social service agencies. She says the letters from A Woman's Place showed the most urgent need for funding. The state currently has a backlog of $4.4 billion in unpaid bills.
The author of the University of Illinois' Flash Economic Index says any noticeable recovery in unemployment may happen well after the statistics point to economic recovery.
In November the index measured 91, sell below the threshold for economic growth, but it's improved one whole percentage point in the last two months.
But U of I economist Fred Giertz says the state may not have seen its highest unemployment rate in the current recession just yet. Giertz says unemployment often lags behind economic improvement.
Unemployment has crept upward in Illinois' metropolitan areas, including Champaign-Urbana, Danville and Decatur. The state department of employment services says the October jobless rate in Champaign-Urbana and vicinity hit 8.6 percent, three tenths of a point higher than September and more than two and a half percent higher than October of last year. The rate for the Danville area rose to 12.1 percent, with Decatur checking in at 12.7 percent, third highest behind Rockford and Kankakee. The state says Champaign-Urbana lost about 18 hundred jobs when compared to this time last year.
Rallies were held on all three University of Illinois campuses Thursday as talks of a strike loomed among graduate workers in Urbana. Some of the chanting was aimed at administrators as more than 300 members and supporters of the Graduate Employees Organization made their way across the campus quad. The rally was held a few hours after two busloads of union members rallied in Springfield, where U of I Trustees were meeting, while 50 with the GEO rallied in Chicago.
Its membership approved a strike authorization vote last week over a living wage and guaranteed tuition waivers. The union says the U of I has agreed to a new negotiating session slated for Saturday afternoon. Co-President Caroline Nappo says it's the result of the membership meeting a week ago when more than 90% of voting members favored a strike. "When we put serious pressure on the university related to a possible work action they are more responsive," says Nappo. "We've been negotiating for almost seven months now and from April until just a few weeks ago, the university hadn't made any kind of offer that gave us anything." Nappo says there's been some movement on the areas of health care coverage and parental leave, and the administration agreed to drop some language about discrimination-based grievances.
GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says adding the Saturday session is encouraging, but its strike committee has been meeting regularly and can call for a work stoppage at any time. U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler says she's hopeful the best possible contract can be reached within the university's financial constraints.
A shelter for women escaping domestic violence says slow state funding may force it to close before long.
The human resources manager of A Woman's Place in Urbana says there's no set date at which the shelter would need to close without funding. But Tara Bossert says she's had to lay off about a dozen employees. Services have been curtailed to little more than emergency housing for victims and their children as well as a 24 hour hotline, and the shelter may not meet payroll for a second straight pay period.
Bossert says the facility is getting little from the state Department of Human Services, other than sympathy.
"We talked to the comptroller's office because they ultimately release the payment to us, and they've basically given us the same answer -- they understand our situation, they sympathize. But they can't expedite anything because they don't have any money to release," Bossert said.
Carol Knowles is with the state comptroller's office, which funnels state money to A Woman's Place and other agencies. She says a lack of revenue is causing fund emergencies for many agencies, and it's hard to tell when payments will catch up.
Bossert says state officials have told her that A Woman's Place is near the top of the priority list for funding when it becomes available. In the meantime, she says volunteers have stepped up to help, but many of the services require specially-trained people.
The outgoing and incoming leaders at the University of Illinois are asking units to set aside six percent of their current budgets.
President Joseph White and his interim successor, Stanley Ikenberry, say the university is dealing with serious cash flow problems because the state isn't keeping up with billings. The state is giving the U of I 719 million dollars this fiscal year, but White and Ikenberry say the U of I has seen little of that so far.
So chief financial officer Walter Knorr says campuses will have to hold back about 45 million dollars in this year's proposed spending, or about 45 million dollars. Knorr says the university has gotten used to holdbacks and recissions, such as last year when ten percent was set aside.
"In 2009 all we ended up with was a 2 1/2% recission. It ended up only being a slow cash payment cycle from the state," Knorr said.
Knorr says the university believes it can hold off any employee furloughs through the end of the calendar year and will try to avoid them next year as well. But the presidents' letter to campus officials still asks that hiring be limited to critical needs.
A monthly gauge of the Illinois economy has made a bit of a rebound.
But the University of Illinois Flash Index cautions about putting too much into an October reading that jumped seven tenths of a percent above the previous month. Economist Fred Giertz says the first substantial improvement in the index in two years is evidence of an improving economy. But he says future months may show a much slower recovery, especially if employment doesn't rebound as well.
"Productivity has been increasing even during the downturn, so when demand starts going up again and people start buying more things it's going to take awhile before we start hiring back a lot of people because firms have become more productive, more efficient in the interim," Giertz said. "They don't need as many people as they used to, so it takes a little bit longer."
The Flash Index measures tax revenue each month from corporations, income and sales. Any number over 100 indicates economic growth - the October index came in at 90.7.
The city of Urbana wants to play catch-up with Champaign and the University of Illinois when it comes to parking fines. . A review of the fine structure concluded that Urbana doesn't charge enough to dissuade people from parking illegally. That's why parking administrator Delora Siebrecht is asking council members to increase fines for parking in restricted or prohibited areas by 20 to 25 dollars if it's paid on time.
Siebrecht says fines for letting your parking meter run out will be set up on a graduated scale.
"It's a low amount for one ticket, then the amount goes up for the second ticket, and it goes up further for the third ticket -- then you'll be at that third fine mount until August 1," said Siebrecht. "Then every year on August 1 the fine amounts will reset back to the lower fine."
Urbana currently has lower parking meter rates than Champaign or the U of I, but Siebrecht says they won't be raised just yet. She says the higher fines could raise about 100 thousand dollars extra for the city. Council members will consider the new fine structure at a study session Monday night and possibly vote on it at a later meeting.
The city of Champaign's chief financial officer is confident that there should be no more layoffs or serious budget cuts.
Richard Schnuer appears before the city council this week to unveil his five year budget outlook. He says revenue forecasts from sales and income taxes and fees may not recover very quickly from the recession - but the rate of decrease has already slowed.
"We're being conservative and expecting that to continue through this fiscal year, but then we are expecting them to stabilize," said Schnuer. "Some of the other revenues such as property tax we are not forecasting a decline but seeing very little growth."
Schnuer says the six million dollars in budget cuts and fee increase the city of Champaign enacted this year should be enough to tide the city through the sluggish revenue over the next five years.
September provided a bit of a respite in east central Illinois' unemployment picture. With the exception of Douglas and Iroquois counties, the jobless rate went down slightly from August to September in the region - in the Champaign-Urbana area, it went down from 8.6 to 8.3 percent. But unemployment is still well above the situation a year ago at this time. It's especially high in the Danville and Decatur areas, where it's been at 12 percent-plus for a few months. At over ten percent, Illinois' jobless rate as a state exceeds the national average.
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