Illinois Public Media News
Urbana's proposed budget doesn't include any tax hikes, but eliminates raises and leaves a number of jobs vacant in order to do that.
The city will also rely on $6 million in reserves to balance the budget. Mayor Laurel Prussing says the $48 million dollar proposed spending plan also relies on fine and fee hikes from the past year. The city will leave seven jobs unfilled, including a police officer, a public works maintenance worker, and an executive assistant job that's being eliminated for good. Prussing says one area of revenue - the state motor fuel tax... really hasn't changed in 20 years, and suggests the city should enact its own. She says a 2-cent tax would bring a half-million dollars a year for street improvements. "This is something that has to be discussed with the council, and I'd like to talk about it with Champaign," said Prussing. "But I think it's something that Urbana really has to take seriously because we have a need for this and I think since we'd only be asking for a fairly modest amount, we'll have to see what the public thinks." Prussing says a 5-cent motor fuel tax has worked well in Danville, where residents don't mind spending the extra money to upgrade streets.
Mayor Prussing says she's also concerned about what courts decide on Provena Covenant Medical Center's tax exemption. She says if local hospitals provide enough charitable care to be exempt, then Urbana taxpayers are paying for it. She says that doesn't seem fair for the city to pick up that cost. Urbana's city council gets its first look at the budget plan on May 24th - a final vote on the plan will be on June 21st.
The University of Illinois' 18th president says it's easy to dwell on the financial problems of the state, rather than the good things the 3-campus institution has to offer. When introduced Wednesday, Michael Hogan also stressed the need to look beyond an admissions controversy that led to the previous president's resignation. The Iowa native got a large ovation in Urbana... about six weeks before he takes the helm of the U of I. Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert has this report:
Vermilion County's financially struggling Health Department is cutting 16 more staff members by June 30th as it looks to maintain minimum state-certified status.
Adminstrator Steve Laker says even operating at that level will rely on another loan from the county - this one for $75,000. The Vermilion County Board will discuss the loan at its meeting Tuesday. The county is also being asked to pick up about 88-thousand dollars in buyouts for laid off employees. Laker says the health department will also implement a four-day work week later this month. "We're going to set a standard furlough day one day a week. The Fridays will be elimated," says Laker. "So our staff time will be elimated from 35 hours to 28 hours a week, and our operations will be a 4-day a week operation."
By July 1st, Laker says his department will only maintain three programs partially dependent on federal dollars. Those programs are communicable disease services, environmental health... and WIC, or the Women, Infants and Children program. Vermilion County's health department is owed more than $600,000 by the state. It started the year with 74 employees, and plans to have 31 when the next fiscal year begins.
The University of Illinois is expected to name its next president by next week. Trustee Pam Strobel confirmed today that the announcement will come between now and next Thursday's U of I Trustees meeting in Chicago. She says the person is a sitting university president or provost. Her comments came after the Trustees' finance committee meeting.
Illinois lawmakers have yet to approve a budget, but Interim President Stanley Ikenberry says trustees still plan on a tuition hike for next year of 9.5 % based on the best information they have. After the committee meeting, he said the U of I will also consider a short-term borrowing measure to make up for a loss of state dollars. Ikenberry says it's frustrating that lawmakers haven't completed their work. He says trustees have to give both the U of I, as well as parents, time to plan. But Ikenberry admits the funds from that tuition increase will fall well short of covering roughly $46 million dollars in lost state support, and a number of comparable budget reductions will still be required.
"I think our philosphy going into this is to ask academic programs and students both to share in this... that's been our practice in the past," said Ikenberry. "And that's what kind of a recommendation would provide for." Ikenberry says it remains to be seen whether the U of I would act on a measure giving short-term borrowing authority to public universities. Governor Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill. Ikenberry says unless legislators solve Illinois' overall financial crisis, he says borrowing will be likely.
Today, Friday, May 7th, is supposed to be the last day for Illinois legislators in Springfield, based on a self-imposed deadline. With an eye toward adjournment, the Illinois Senate approved a spending plan in the early morning hours. But there's still no final budget agreement.
Partisan differences over the best way to proceed given Illinois' $13 billion deficit are the main holdup. Whether the GOP will continue to remain opposed to Democrats' plan to borrow money remains uncertain.
Unless one or two House Republicans go along with borrowing ... Illinois will skip putting about $4 billion into the state's already underfunded pension systems.
Another central component of the budget gives the governor flexibility to make cuts, borrow from earmarked state funds, further put off paying state vendors, and institute furloughs.
State Representative Greg Harris, a Chicago Democrat, says there's good reason to give Quinn emergency powers.
"As much as none of us like this, we're in very uncertain times and trying to paddle through uncharted waters," says Harris.
Republicans say the governor has a poor record of managing state finances and argue he can't be trusted with such flexibility.
As the House and Senate look to reconcile on a budget ... a cigarette tax hike, tax amnesty program and possibly allowing video gaming at horse racetracks ... are all options. Whatever the final budget, it's clear legislators won't go through with education cuts that teachers unions say could have led to 20 thousand layoffs at schools statewide.
Vermilion County is once again on the warning list in a report on Illinois poverty put out by the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance.
The Alliance's "2010 Report on Illinois Poverty" lists Vermilion County among 29 counties in the state with high poverty, unemployment and teen birth rates, and low high school graduation rates. Christian and Kankakee Counties are also on the Warning List. The indicators are only a little better in DeWitt, Macon, Edgar, Coles and Clark Counties --- they've been placed on the report's Watch List.
Amy Terpstra with the Heartland Alliance's research unit says that while some counties are worse off, poverty has gotten worse in all parts of Illinois. But she cites differences between rural and urban poverty.
"When you look at rural areas, you see a lot of access issues", says Terpstra. . "Those people have a hard time getting to the services that they need to help them meet their basic needs. They have trouble getting transportation to jobs. When you start looking at some suburban areas, maybe slightly more urban areas, there's issues about enough resources to go
Overall, the report says about 1.5 million Illinoisans - 12.2% of the total --- were living in poverty in 2008, as the recession began. The study says those already living in extreme poverty have been the hardest hit, and their recovery is expected to be the slowest.
In addition, Amy Terpstra says the wealth of Illinoisans is eroding.
"You look at foreclosures and you look at bankruptcies", says Terpstra, "and you've seen both of those over the last couple of years really skyrocket. And so not only are families losing jobs and not drawing in that income, but their long-term wealth and their long-term stability is being eroded by bankruptcies and foreclosures and debt.
Terpstra says the Heartland Alliance calls on state lawmakers to find new revenue to shore up the state budget and preserve social service programs that help the poor.
The Heartland Alliance is a Chicago-based organization that grew out of that city's old Traveler's Aid Society. Terpstra says they believe that good government policy can help turn around the poverty rate. She says that includes putting "new revenue" into the state budget, and using the money to avoid deep cuts in social services.
A math error means Ameren can receive more revenue than originally anticipated in its request for a rate hike.
The Illinois Commerce Commission has corrected its projections. It says the utility company would get $15 million instead of the $5 million the agency when ruling on the request last week. But ICC spokeswoman Beth Bosch says while the additional $10 million dollars adds to Ameren's bottom line, it should have little, if any, impact on rates. "Because you spread it out over six companies, it doesn't change the rate impact significantly," said Bosch. "Gas rates will still be lower for delivery services. And the electricity rates will still be approximately the same as they were in the previous order." The increase between the rate case ruling released last week and the corrected one amounts about half a percentage point more for Ameren's IP, CILCO, and CIPS electric customers. Bosch says the mistake stemmed from a technical error in the calculation of Ameren's cash working capital.
But Ameren contends there are additional math errors in the ICC's ruling. Spokesman Leigh Morris says fixing 'several significant' mistakes would mean an additional $25 million in revenue, and the utility has filed an emergency motion with the ICC to have that done. But Morris says this decision is separate from whether the utility appeals its original rate hike request of $162 million. Ameren has until May 28th to request a re-hearing with the ICC.
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.
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