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.
Illinois Public Media News
The community college system in Illinois has recorded its biggest enrollment increase in years, and Danville Area Community College leads the statistics.
DACC's headcount jumped by almost 32 percent this fall compared to the same time last year, to nearly 36-hundred students. More than 21 hundred of them are taking the equivalent of a full-time class load, which is a nearly 28 percent increase.
President Alice Marie Jacobs says the school is handling the student boom, in terms of both space and teachers.
"We do utilize a number of part-time faculty, many who have years of experience teaching at Danville Area Community College, so that's one way we're able to add sections," Jacons said. "We also have faculty who have been very cooperative and were willing to add extra sections to their loads."
Most community college administrators cite the sluggish economy as a factor in their strong enrollments, with many people going back to school for more job training. But Jacobs says DACC is also getting more recent high school graduates, including honor students.
The city of Urbana could be looking at a mix of increased fees and cuts next year to meet a deficit of at least $1 million. The current deficit stands at $1.3 million. City Comptroller Ron Eldridge says the city is beginning to see the impact of decreased revenues that cities like Champaign and Decatur faced earlier this year. He says those revenues are down more than 800-thousand dollars, despite getting a sales tax boost from the new Meijer store and state dollars from conducting a special census.
And Eldridge notes next year's estimated million-dollar deficit comes at a time when contracts are expiring with city employees. "All three of the union contracts are up for renegotiation," says Eldridge. "So I know the mayor probably suggests that there should be no salary increases on any of those contracts, and I think that's a good suggestion. As to whether the unions will go along with that or not, I don't know." Eldridge says the city could be forced to cut some non-essential services. While he's not suggesting it, he says the city's free leaf collection may have to be eliminated and passed on to waste haulers.
In a presentation at Monday night's city council study session, Eldridge was expected to run through possible fee hikes, including those for vehicle impoundment, towing, and natural gas, as well as an increase in parking meter rates. Budget discussions are expected to go on for a several months.
Gov. Pat Quinn is keeping attention on a college financial aid program for low-income students.
Lawmakers cut funding in half for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, also known as MAP grants. About 145,000 low-income students get financial assistance through the program.
The Chicago Democrat wants to see the money restored and he will rally at colleges around the state later this week, including the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University and Bradley University. The UI rally takes place Wednesday at noon at the Illini Union.
But Quinn's Democratic primary challenger, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, has said Quinn signed off on the cuts to the program. The cuts were part of lawmakers' efforts to deal with a gaping budget hole.
Quinn has had other MAP grant rallies at Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
At least one Saturn dealer in the area says it's heard nothing official about the end of the car brand and the shutdown of its dealership network.
General Motors says a deal to sell Saturn's distribution system and brand to Penske Automotive Group fell through because Penske wasn't able to find an automaker to make Saturns past 2011. GM now says the dealerships will be phased out.
Bill Lutes manages Saturn of Terre Haute, which has been in business for ten years. He says it's hard to tell his 30 employees what to do next because there's been no word from GM to dealers.
"I've met with everybody and told them Plan A is 'business as usual' and Plan B is to explore other options," Lutes said. "We'll just stay positive and keep smiling."
Lutes says the other options could include finding another new car franchise or selling only used cars. The dealership is owned by Evansville-based Romain Auto Group, which also owns three other Saturn dealers.
A Central Illinois program that helps ex-felons transition into jobs and homes lost its funding this summer. Now its executive director wants to know how a number of new parolees returning to the Decatur area will seek out such services.
Decatur's Promise Community Center used to receive a 100-thousand grant to help those getting out of prison. But most of those funds helped those leaving a prison in East St. Louis, and few of them relocating in Decatur. So the grant ended June 30th, and will be shifted to East St. Louis at a later date. Promise Center Executive Director Reverend Leroy Smith says that makes sense, but he's concerned about the additional 1000 parolees that Governor Pat Quinn plans to release within a month. Smith says the Promise Center is basically a one-man operation, in which he takes a handful of referrals.
"I'm a person who, if I'm making a commitment, I will follow through," Smith said. "And our organization is known to do that."
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says there's been no breakdown as to where the 1000 non-violent early-released prisoners will come from, but she assures there won't be a logjam of parolees in programs like the Promise Center.
"With that early release of inmates, Governor Quinn has allocated us two million dollars to help with that, which will help us electronically monitor those parolees as well as set up an increase support services that they may need," the spokeswoman said.
Reverend Smith says he still plans to advocate for ex-felons when possible. He still serves on an executive committee for prisoner re-entry under Governor Quinn.
If natural gas prices are stable this winter, central and southern Illinois homeowners will pay less to heat their homes.
Ameren predicts the price it will pay for natural gas will average 26 percent less than last year's heating season. The utility passes along the price it pays for gas directly to billpayers - and this fall, spokesman Leigh Morris says it's considerably less than the price spike we saw last year with gas and other types of fuel.
"Just going back one year, it was $1.32 a therm, and right now the October price is $0.56 a therm. That's the average for all three utilities," Morris said, citing the three divisions of Ameren's Illinois utilities. "That's about a 58 percent movement from a year ago."
The recession may be to blame for the worldwide drop in demand for natural gas - and thus the drop in prices. Morris is quick to point out that Ameren's pending request for a gas rate increase involves the fee the utility charges to deliver that gas.
The parent company of Central Illinois Bank has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with hopes of reorganizing with a strategic partner in 45 to 60 days.
But CIB Bancshares Chairman and CEO John Hickey Junior says the filing will have no impact on the bank and its customers. He says Central Illinois Bank has the capital for it to continue doing business with clients, and is separate from the petition that the holding company filed Tuesday night in federal court in Milwaukee.
Hickey says trust-preferred securities holders had to agree to a pre-packaged reorganization plan that was similar to what auto makers GM and Chrysler went through:
"You get the pre-approval from the creditors in advance, and that allows you to go in on a pre-package basis and come out and emerge very quickly," Hickey said. "We've continued to keep the regulators all informed in terms of where we are in the process, and so we've kept them up to date."
Hickey says employees of the parent company are excited about prospects for the company's future. Discussions with potential partners are expected start once the reorganization is complete.
Central Illinois Bank has 12 branches in the region, including locations in Champaign, Urbana, Danville and Decatur. CIB Marine Bancshares also has offices in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Arizona.
A Champaign city councilman is proposing a "family resource center" to provide services to residents of the city --- but especially to its northeast side.
1st District City Councilman Will Kyles says the need for a center to bring community services into the northeast side became clear to him in his work as outreach coordinator for Congressman Tim Johnson. He says the center could provide services and activities for children, teens, parents --- even ex-convicts trying to make a fresh start.
"We believe in structures, we need structures," Kyles said. "But the issue is that it'll take awhile to rebuild those structures, to redevelop the neighborhood. So in the process of redeveloping the neighborhood, why not have services that are building people up?"
Melorene Grantham of the Peer Ambassadors youth group told the city council a family resource center could provide activities for older teens that are currently lacking in the area. She says that's a need her group found out about from its monthly meetings with youth at the Champaign County Juvenile Detention Center.
They said they need other things to do to stay out of trouble, like jobs," said Grantham. "We went every month for some years; that was the top thing they say would keep out of trouble."
Kyles says the city of Champaign could work with the community, and leverage state and federal funds to put the family resource center together. But he says it wouldn't happen right away. He hopes the idea can be included among the Champaign City Council's goals for the next 5 to 10 years.
Champaign and Urbana are vying for federal grant money to build a network of broadband computer service in underserved areas. But that could entice the cities to look into broadening the service even further.
Urbana city council members have held holding a study session on the subject. Mayor Laurel Prussing says the grant - if the cities win it - could be an opportunity to offer internet, TV and phone service at a competitive rate to nearly all residents.
"What I'd like to see, instead of having something that's going to be taking money from the cities over the future, I'd like to see it set up as a utility so that the cities can provide service to the public, and get revenue so we wouldn't have to rely so much on taxes," Prussing said.
The so-called big broadband project is already working to extend coverage to key community facilities like libraries, along with parts of the cities that may not be covered by private fiber-optic projects. Prussing says the council still needs to decide whether to pursue the federal grant, how much it would want to spend and how to develop a business plan for broadband service.