Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 31, 2012

Champaign Cty Board to Weigh Future of Two Jails

The Champaign County Board is prepared to take a straw vote Tuesday on whether to close the downtown jail, and expand the satellite facility.

But one activists group is opposed to what's been supported by Republican County Sheriff Dan Walsh and at least one Democratic Board member. County board Democrat Carol Ammons, who's also with CU Citizens for Peace and Justice, contends that the appropriate research hasn't been done.

"This is not a one time (payment) of putting up your building and the costs end," Ammons said. "This is going to be a recurring cost, which is not captured anywhere. That's why we're calling for a real study to be done. Of course, Mr. Betz does not believe that we need to invest any money into a real study. But I beg to differ. You're asking the taxpayers for upwards of $20-million with no actual study."

Ammons was referring to Democrat Tom Betz, who heads the county board's facilities committee. Tuesday night's discussion will focus on an engineer's report that focuses on structural problems with the downtown facility. Ammons also says the county's African-American Community will be adversely affected since more than half of those incarcerated locally are black. She says jail expansion is both a financial and a human development issue, saying expansion 'can't be discussed in a vacuum."

Republican county board member John Jay says he'll need a little more convincing before deciding the downtown jail is unusable. He also questions where the funding for the expansion will come from.

"We have some theories about some bonds coming due that we'll be able to utilize, but all that need to be laid out," Jay said. "I don't think that the amount that we orginally talked about is going to be close enough. The other thing that we really don't know, until we get into the process, what are we looking at? Are we looking at $25 to 35-million? I don't have a clue."

The county board study session is at 6 p.m. Tuesday, following a 5:30 press conference from the citizens' group.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 30, 2012

Civic Group: Illinois Unpaid Bills Could Quadruple

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

According to a report released Monday by the Civic Federation of Chicago, Illinois' overdue bills will total more than $9 billion this summer, and that number could be nearly four times as much in just five years.

As legislators return to Springfield this week, they're facing a difficult situation. Civic Federation President Laurence Msall said the state must act quickly to solve its fiscal problems.

"There's nothing politically easily left to do in the state of Illinois," Msall said. "The tax increase didn't solve the problem. We're going to have to start to say no and make painful choices."

The Civic Federation suggests cutting retirement benefits for government employees, reducing Medicaid costs and taxing retirement and Social Security income.

A major state-employee union sharply criticized the Civic Federation's recommendations.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the group calls for government workers to make sacrifices but not big corporations or wealthy individuals. It opposes borrowing to pay overdue bills but ignores the impact on businesses and community groups the state is failing to pay, the union said, and the report doesn't make clear that high pension costs are largely a result of the state failing to pay its share in the past.

"The federation's repeated omission of relevant context calls its credibility into question," said an AFSCME statement "Instead this document reads like a series of ideological conclusions searching for factual support."

In a statement, Gov. Pat Quinn's office said employers "need to have a stake'' in paying for teacher retirement costs. The Democratic governor's also says he wants "aggressive restructuring'' of Medicaid, the health program for poor people.

Quinn gives his State of the State address on Wednesday and will formally propose a budget proposal on Feb. 22. He has called for "aggressive restructuring of the Medicaid system," a topic he may discuss in his address. He and legislative leaders have discussed cutting pension benefits for state employees and reducing costs for Medicaid. But it is not clear they will be able to agree on a plan, or whether legislators will be willing to vote for cuts in an election year.

Meanwhile, Illinois regional school superintendents are hoping they're not targets this year in the governor's State of the State address. State funding for Illinois' regional superintendents is being proposed for next fiscal year.

Last year Gov. Quinn suggested doing away with the 44 positions, then vetoed funding for their salaries in July. Illinois' elected regional superintendents oversee training bus drivers, GED testing, and school building inspections, among other things. Quinn justified cutting funding for the positions last year by calling the officials "bureaucrats."

President of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents Bob Daiber said they are working hard to educate officials about what they do.

"We think the greatest preventative measure is both the General Assembly and the governor to fully understand our significance and that we're not a part of any bureaucracy in Illinois," Daiber said.

The regional superintendents and their assistants worked without pay from last July until November, when legislators approved using money from a corporate property tax.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 25, 2012

Daniels Gives State of the Union Response

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels says President Obama isn't responsible for America's fiscal and economic crises.

But in the Republican response to the State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Daniels says the President has failed to deliver on a promise to fix these conditions.

The Governor says Obama has put the country on a course to make it radically worse in the years ahead, while the federal government borrows one of every three dollars it spends.

"The President's grand experiment in trickle-down government has held back rather than sped economic recovery," Daniels said. "He seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. In fact, it works the other way: a government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it."

Daniels says Republicans did credit the President for his aggressive pursuit of terrorists with ties to 9-11, and what he calls 'long overdue changes' in public education.

But he also accused Obama of attacking Republicans in Congress as obstacles as the country looks for ways to reform the tax system. Daniels also says Obama has cancelled plans that could have helped the economy, citing his decision to delay construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

"The extremism that stifles the development of homegrown energy, or cancels a perfectly safe pipeline that would employ tens of thousands, or jacks up consumer utility bills for no improvement in either human health or world temperature, is a pro-poverty policy," Daniels said.

Daniels says he favors a simpler tax system of 'fewer loopholes and lower rates', and maximizing on domestic energy policies, calling them the 'best break our economy has gotten in years.'

Gov. Daniels, who had considered a presidential run himself last year, also said the safety net of Medicare and Social Security need some repairs for the next generation.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 25, 2012

Urbana Schools Hires Next Superintendent

The Urbana School District has hired Assistant Superintendent Don Owen to serve as its next superintendent, replacing Preston Williams.

On Tuesday night, the District 116 school board quickly accepted Williams' notice to retire next year, and voted unanimously for Owen to take over 18 months from now.

Owen has been with the Urbana School District since 1989, and has served as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction since 2007. He previously worked as a site coordinator at Wiley Elementary's After School Child Care program, taught history at Urbana Middle School, and coordinated grant-based programs in the school district.

In his new contract, Owen will earn $170,000 annually for four years, starting in July 2013.

He explained that the school board approached him about the job a few weeks ago, when Williams announced his plans to retire. Owen said District 116 was looking for consistency in its strategic plan, and someone who knew the community well. He said he has worked closely with Williams, and calls the next year and a half a continuation of that process. Still, Owen acknowledged that there are other obstacles in front of him.

"The current state funding is one of our biggest challenges," he said. "I think the external pressures on public schools are huge, and we've come a long way in the last five years under Dr. Williams' leadership, and even before that under Dr. (Gene) Amberg's. We'll continue to face those challenges, and look for new and innovative solutions."

Williams says Owen made sense, given his long history with the district, and his ability to take on challenges.

"And that's really what a search is about," he said. "You try to find the best fit for the district - for the relationship with the board of education. And I think with Don having been here for a number of years, the board has had an opportunity to see him under some very stressful situations. They've also seen the type of work he's capable of doing, and he's his own man."

Williams says he'll be ready to take on a new challenge in his life in about 17 months, but needs that time to figure out what that challenge will be.

(Photo courtesy of District 116 schools)

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 24, 2012

52nd Senate Candidates Now Focused on Fall Contest

The two candidates now remaining in next fall's race for the 52nd District Senate race have different approaches on how to solve Illinois' fiscal problems.

But neither Republican John Bambenek nor incumbent Democrat Mike Frerichs want to focus on why Alan Nudo dropped his bid for the GOP nomination.

Nudo announced his withdrawal from the race, and resignation from the Champaign County Board, after a political blogger accused him of supporting Frerichs in the past, by co-signing checks to a previous campaign.

Frerichs says he's been asked whether Nudo signed checks, but the Senator says he's not interested in fighting that fight.

"Democrats have taken action to begin to right the ship of state here in Illinois," Frerichs said. "What I think we need to focus on though is fairness in our tax system, and some progressivity in our tax system. I think there is some disagreement, but I'm looking forward to a debate season where we'll outline those differences and the voters will have a choice next fall."

Nudo says he signed the campaign donation checks as part of his job handling day to day accounting for a development firm, and accused Frerichs and Bambenek of collusion in making the charge. But he later said his accusation was a "mistake".

In a statement released Sunday, Bambenek says he wants to unify the Republican Party. He called Nudo 'a respected member of the community whose leadership will be missed on the county board.' But Bambenek also hoped to earn the support of some Nudo supporters.

"At this point in the general election race, what will be a very high-profile race, I would need all the help that I can get," he said. "I do hope to earn the support of those who have supported Alan, and those around him."

In his statement, Bambenek referred to his fall opponent as Democrat 'tax-hike' Frerichs, saying the best way to fix those problems is not through raising taxes, but to cut waste, fraud and abuse. Nudo didn't return a call seeking comment Monday.

UPDATE: Bambenek issued a statement Tuesday, concluding that Nudo played no role in the donation to Frerichs' campaign, and is neither an owner nor a decision-maker for Triple-R Development.

"I regret that this information was disseminated by my campaign and/or supporters before all the facts behind the issue were fully vetted," Bambenek said. "I wish Mr. Nudo the best in his future endeavors and am grateful for his leadership in the Republican Party and community at large.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 21, 2012

Champaign Salvation Army Short on Funds

The Salvation Army of Champaign County says it has to cut some of its spending after holiday fundraising fell short of the charity's goals.

Mike Fuqua of the Salvation Army of Champaign County told The News-Gazette newspaper in Champaign ( the group fell about $46,000 short of the $430,000 goal for its annual Red kettle campaign.

Fuqua said some employees will have hours cut while the group will hold off on some planned maintenance and equipment purchases.

The Salvation Army operates an emergency shelter for men and helps needy families get food.

This is the first year the religious-based social service group has fallen short on its fundraising goal.

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - January 19, 2012

Gov. Quinn Plans to Close Two State Facilities

Governor Pat Quinn announced on Thursday that he plans to close the Jacksonville Developmental Center and Tinley Park Mental Health Center.

Quinn's office is calling the closures a "re-balancing." The Governor plans to move institutionalized patients with developmental disabilities and mental illness to community-based settings.

In a statement, Quinn said it will improve their quality of life, but it also means savings to the state. The administration estimates the closures will save nearly $12 million a year by closing the Jacksonville facility, and another 8 million dollars annually once Tinley Park is shuttered. Much of those savings will come through laying off state employees.

State Rep. Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville) said that will mean turmoil for his community, and for some of the legal guardians who have long entrusted their loved ones to be cared for in Jacksonville.

"If you were the parent, if it was one of your loved ones there, what would you know right now about their future, where they're going?" Watson said. "What if you were a 75 year old sick parent and you know where your child is now. And you hear this, nobody has called you and talked to you about it. I don't think those people feel very secure at all."

Watson said he is hopeful the General Assembly will be able to stop the governor's plan. Quinn had previously moved to close seven state facilities, but lawmakers reached an agreement to prevent it.

Tinley Park is slated to close in July, with Jacksonville to follow in October.

Quinn's said in the next couple years, it plans to close up to three more state institutions for the developmentally disabled.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2012

Champaign Police Lobby to Stay Open 24/7

Champaign Deputy Police Chief Troy Daniels

Plans for reducing the front desk staff and cutting lobby hours at Champaign Police Headquarters became one of the most controversial parts of budget cuts approved by the City Council last year. Now, despite the staff cuts, police officials say they've found a way to keep the front desk open to the public on evenings and overnights. Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows talked with Champaign Deputy Police Chief Troy Daniels about the new arrangement.

(Photo courtesy of the city of Champaign)

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2012

Champaign Avoids Two Cuts in Public Service

The city of Champaign has managed to avoid two cuts in public service that were proposed as part of cuts to the city budget.

One of the cuts would have involved closing the front desk at police headquarters on evenings and weekends. But Deputy Police Chief Troy Daniels said the department had decided they can keep the desk open with reduced staff. Daniels says the front desk serves a vital role in public safety --- notably for people trying to reach a police officer without a phone.

"There have also been times when people ran into the police department because someone's chased, or they've recently been injured, or they've been in the area and it's freezing cold outside and there have nowhere else to go," Daniels said. "Under the new arrangements, police officers will come in off of patrol at times to fill in for front desk personnel who go on break."

At the same time, members of the Champaign firefighters union have agreed to wage and time concessions in a deal that will keep the 2nd engine company at Fire Station Four fully staffed. The union is providing 55-percent of the funding through wage and time concessions in a side-letter agreement that will run until June 30, 2013. Fire Chief Douglas Forsman said that means they can drop plans to reduce available fire companies on the west side of the city.

"We were always attempting to limit the impact by essentially browning out the least busy fire company in the city," Forsman said. "However, there was going to be an impact, no question about that. And that has been avoided."

The two proposed cutbacks had been among the most controversial ones proposed during last year's cuts to the Champaign City budget. Both became issues during last year's mayoral and city council elections.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - January 18, 2012

Urbana to Intervene on Illinois-American Water’s Rate Hike Request

The city of Urbana hopes to have a say before Illinois American Water's local rates go up as much as 18 percent, or roughly $7, this fall.

The city council's 6-1 vote means Urbana will spend up to $8,000 in legal fees to join Champaign, Savoy, St. Joseph, Sidney and Philo, with hopes of reducing the amount of the company's latest rate hike request before the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Illinois-American wants to raise them for 308,000 customers, seeking $38 million in revenues.

External affairs manager Chris Bacon said much of the request is for infrastructure like fire hydrants, valves, and more than four miles of water main. The company will spend $180 million statewide on these upgrades. Meanwhile, $10.5 million in revenues would make up for a decline in water usage among customers.

Alderman Charlie Smyth said that part of the request isn't fair.

"It really bothers me that people who have conserved, who have cut their costs, are going to get punished via this rate increase," Smyth said. "I think that's totally inappropriate."

But Bacon said customers will be better off in the long run.

"The more customers conserve water, the less improvements that we have to make, making repairs to costly mains, wells, pipes, things of that nature," Bacon said.

If the ICC approves the full amount of the request, it would also mean rate increases of about 25 percent for small local commercial customers. Illinois American made the request last October, and expects the process to take about 11 months.

Alderwoman Heather Stevenson cast the lone dissenting vote. Citing tight finances, she says the $8-thousand should be spent on something else with no guarantee the rate hike request will be reduced.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

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