Illinois Public Media News
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.
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.
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