Illinois Public Media News
There is a bit less blight in some north Champaign neighborhoods as the results of a federally-funded program.
On Friday, Champaign city officials took people on a tour of three houses that were either built or rehabbed under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Sheila Dodd of Champaign's Neighborhood Services Department said the city had won $1.9 million in federal stimulus money to do the work.
"It allows us to buy vacant, abandoned, blighted or foreclosed properties, and then with that we fix them up or demolish them," Dodd said. "Our reuse of the projects can be rental, homeowner rehab, those type of things."
Dodd said the Neighborhood Stabilization Program has not solved the entire problem of blight -- but it's made a difference in the Douglass Park area, where there's already been a lot of new construction.
"There's going to be six new homes built in a two block area over in that neighborhood, so it's just going to further our neighborhood wellness goals over there," she said. "It also helped with some homes that were in really poor shape - we were able to demolish them and we'll rebuild with new construction, which helps the properties around them maintain their value or even increase in value."
Habitat for Humanity is using some of the lots to build houses for low-income home buyers. Other properties will be offered by the Center for Women in Transition to clients escaping abusive households and needing rental housing.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced Friday he is laying off up to 625 city workers, after labor leaders blew a Friday deadline to come up with a list of cost-saving measures in order to avoid pink slips.
"I took the steps because I cannot wish away this budget shortfall," Emanuel said.
The layoffs will hit the city's water department call center, city custodians, and the office that manages health benefits for city workers. His plan will also lead to a 75 percent force reduction of the seasonal workforce at the Department of Transportation, which would mean fewer street and sidewalk improvements this year.
Layoff notices will begin going out next week, said a mayoral spokeswoman.
The mayor also used his remarks to slam union leaders for not agreeing to a menu of of compensation and work rule changes he said would have precluded pink slips. His proposal, outlined to the public in its entirety for the first time Friday, would eliminate sick pay for city trade workers, lengthen the work week, and reduce pay for overtime, among other changes.
The mayor said his administration would meet with labor leaders on Monday, but he would not say whether he would cancel the layoffs if union workers agree to the work rule changes he had pushed.
Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez responded to the mayor's decision on Friday afternoon. Ramirez said he was unaware of the deadline and that he and other leaders would continue to work on their own cost-saving plan. He said the CFL has hired an outside consultant to help come up with a proposal.
Ramirez said the unions were left in the dark about Emanuel's proposed work rule changes.
"They have never been formerly presented with anything, they haven't been asked to sit down in a formal way, and this is something shouldn't have caught the city by surprise," Ramirez said. "We told them there was a process from the very first meeting that we had. We suggested to them that they engage it if they intend to do anything like that, and they just chose not to."
Emanuel's administration inherited the labor dispute from former Mayor Richard Daley. The Daley administration balanced its 2011 budget, in part, by squeezing concessions and furlough days from unions. But that labor agreement expired last month, leaving the Emanuel administration to come up with about $31 million in savings to close out the budget year.
Emanuel has said he is against imposing more furlough days on city workers and he previously ordered a partial hiring freeze. He also said seven city-run health clinics will turn over primary care services to federally funded clinics. Emanuel said the measures would save $20 million.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Indiana closed its budget books Thursday with $1.2 billion in extra cash, built on a series of deep cuts to education and healthcare services and improved tax collections.
State Auditor Tim Berry called the state workers who bore most of those budget cuts via greater workloads, "heroes."
"The surplus was built on the backs of state employees," said Berry, after he thanked them for tightening their belts.
Gov. Mitch Daniels has already said he plans to keep that money in savings rather than restore cuts made in recent years.
The Daniels administration set a target of cutting $597 million from the budget last July, just before state tax collections improved. Although tax collections improved dramatically over the last year, the administration cut deeper as the year went on, ultimately cutting roughly $460 million more than what they planned for last July.
"More money in Hoosiers' incomes and a terrific job of cost control by state employees working together combined to produce an even stronger result than we expected at budget time," Daniels said in a statement Thursday. He planned a Friday morning press conference to discuss the budget.
But talk of the massive state surplus glossed over how the administration achieved it, largely through cuts to education and children's healthcare, House Minority Leader Pat Bauer said Thursday.
"This is a gimmicky report; which has not been unusual for this administration," said Bauer, D-South Bend.
The state school system bore much of the brunt over the last year, returning $325 million from the $6.9 billion that it was allotted in the previous budget. The cuts were more pronounced for state agencies with smaller budgets such as the Department of Child Services, which had its budget slashed by $104 million.
The other half of the state's budget equation, tax collections, improved significantly over the last year, and the state collected $204 million more than it had projected. Most of that money, $195 million, came from income taxes.
The budget surplus should help the state replenish its emergency spending fund, the Rainy Day Fund, which is monitored closely by bond-rating agencies as they set interest rates for the state on its outstanding debt.
The $1.2 billion also fell just short of the amount needed to trigger automatic tax refunds for Hoosiers. The automatic tax refunds kick in when the state has a surplus equal to 10 percent or more of general spending. The $1.2 billion figure amounted to 9.1 percent of spending.
Parkland College in Champaign now has the funding it needs to move forward with a large expansion.
About $31 billion in construction funds were released earlier this week by the state, and $24.6 million of that money will support construction of the Student Services Center and Applied Technology Building at Parkland.
Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon, who was at Parkland Thursday morning as part of a statewide tour of community colleges, said the construction program will improve access to education in an already crowded school.
"They're filled to the gills here," Simon said. "Their offices, their classrooms, are totally loaded with students. We heard about students going out to their cars to study in between classes. So, to have more space to do their good work here is going to be a big improvement for everyone."
Parkland College President Tom Ramage estimates that once construction of the two buildings wraps up, the college will be able to accept up to 5,000 additional students over the next 20 years.
"We've experienced huge enrollment growth over the last four or five years," Ramage said. "When we're out of classroom space and out of office space, it limits the sort of offerings we can put out for our students."
Parkland has already raised an additional $67 million for its so-called "Master Plan," which includes the two buildings, the addition of a Fine and Applied Arts Center, and remodeling on campus.
State officials say these projects are expected to employ hundreds of construction workers.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich have asked a judge for permission to speak with the jurors who recently convicted the impeached Illinois governor on multiple corruption charges.
A filing with U.S. District Court on Thursday seeks access to jurors as the defense prepares post-trial motions. It doesn't specify the motions, but it's widely expected Blagojevich will appeal his convictions.
Defense attorneys often interview jurors about how they reached a verdict in a search for fodder that could bolster their appeal.
Jurors found the 54-year-old Blagojevich guilty on 17 of 20 counts, including attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Several jurors told reporters after the retrial they liked Blagojevich and hoped to acquit him. But they said they believed the evidence was overwhelming.
The Vermilion County Board overwhelmingly approved a measure Tuesday night by a vote of 22-1 to issue a land permit to an energy company that wants to construct a large wind farm in Vermilion and Champaign Counties.
The lone dissenting vote came from board member Terry Stal.
Chicago-based Invenergy is looking to build 104 wind turbines in Vermilion County starting northeast of Kickapoo State Park. The company is willing to pay the county up to $90,000 a year in property taxes and an additional $150,000 in building permit fees.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon supports the plan, touting its economic advantages for the community.
"Land owners get anywhere between $4,000 and $8,000 a year for leasing a piece of their land for the wind turbine," McMahon said. "So, you get the economic boost of people getting money because of the wind."
Darrell Cambron of rural Rankin has opposed the project from the start. Cambron said that the Vermilon County wind ordinance, which allows the wind turbines within 1,000 feet of a home is simply too close. He is urging county officials to give the plan a second look.
"It seems like they keep getting bigger all the time," Cambron said. "I've talked to other people who have had them around their homes, and they have problems with them."
Each wind turbine would be 492 feet tall, and have the capacity of producing 1.6 megawatts. Cambron said he is concerned that the large wind turbines would create too much noise and shadow flicker. However, McMahon said those concerns could only be addressed if Vermilion County had a zoning ordinance, but he said county simply does not have one on the books.
"I have no jurisdiction to look at those issues when it's a building permit," McMahon explained. "If you were going to build a building, and you needed a permit for that building, you have to produce that that building is a sound building, and it's not going to fall over or somebody get hurt."
The wind farm would stretch to Champaign County, where there would be 30 additional turbines north of Royal and just south of Gifford.
Champaign County Board member Alan Kurtz, a Democrat, said the county's wind farm ordinance, which took three years to develop, will allow the county to reap the benefits, including hundreds of jobs.
"I was able to put together a coalition of Republicans and Democrats, and we passed a wind farm ordinance by a supermajority of 25 out of the 27 votes on the county board," Kurtz explained. "It's obvious that there was a consensus for wind farms here in Champaign County and the revenues that it will bring to us."
The Champaign County Planning and Zoning Department received its application this week to build the wind farm. A set of public hearings on the project is scheduled Aug. 25, and Sept. 1, 8 and 29 at the Champaign County Zoning Board of Appeals.
"I don't know if the county board is going to want to do a study session," county zoning director John Hall said. "They are all pretty familiar with the wind farm requirements since it was such a relatively recent amendment, so I never presumed that they would want a study session...there are no plans for a study session at this time."
The Champaign County Board could vote on the application as early as Oct. 20.
Illinois Governor Pat Quinn said he had no choice but to cancel pay raises for some 30,000 employees of 14 state agencies.
Union workers were expecting a 2 percent pay raise, but were blindsided earlier this month when the governor scrapped the raises to save the state approximately $75 million.
Members of the labor group AFSCME picketed across the state Tuesday to protest the governor's decision. About a dozen of them showed up along Mattis Avenue in Champaign. Wayne Matthews, a 33-year employee with the Illinois Department of Public Health, was at the rally. He said union members have made plenty of sacrifices over the last few years, and he said they deserve their salary increases.
"Two percent is still better than no percent, which is what we've had for a long time," Matthews said. "We've actually - in this contract - pushed back our raises, and volunteered furlough days and other things to save the state money. This is how we're rewarded."
Tara McCauley, a staff representative for AFSCME local 31, was also in Champaign during the picket. McCauley said the governor's decision to cancel the raises was unprecedented.
"We've negotiated contracts with Illinois governors for decades," McCauley said. "We've never had a governor try to go back on a raise that he's negotiated. You know, we've got a signed contract, so we feel that this isn't Wisconsin, this isn't Ohio. We're not going to allow our governor to take away people's legal rights to collectively bargain. So, it is about a bigger issue for us as well."
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Governor Quinn defended his actions.
"The General Assembly did not provide any money for pay raises for the AFSCME state workers," Quinn said. "That is the long and the short of it. I cannot give them money that the General Assembly hasn't appropriated in terms of a raise."
AFSCME had supported Quinn, a Democrat, in the November election. Just prior to that endorsement, the union agreed to defer raises while Quinn guaranteed two years without layoffs.
The union filed suit in federal court in Springfield last week to block the pay freeze. The group contends the pay raise rejection was illegal, and it is bringing in an arbitrator to settle the dispute.
The Illinois Federation of Teachers has also joined in AFSCME's lawsuit.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
A Sangamon County judge has granted a preliminary injunction that keeps the foster-care and adoption contracts between the state and Catholic Charities in place.
In granting the injunction, Circuit Judge John Schmidt says the discontinuance of the contracts could cause irreparable harm to families the organization serves.
Diocese officials in Peoria, Joliet and Springfield sued to hold up enforcement of a law that would force them to place foster kids with gay couples. They oppose on religious grounds the Illinois civil union law allowing gays to adopt children or provide foster care.
"This is a great win for the 2,000 children under the care of Catholic Charities, protecting these kids from the grave disruption that the state's reckless decision to terminate would have caused," according to a statement by Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel of the Thomas More Society. "We will continue this fight until all young people in need now and in the future are guaranteed their right to receive the high-quality foster and adoption care that the Catholic Church has provided for over a century to Illinois children."
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services says it won't renew foster-care and adoption contracts with the not-for-profit organization Catholic Charities.
The move involves about 2,000 children, but state officials say their foster care won't be affected.
The next hearing is scheduled for August 17, 2011 at 9 AM, where Judge Schmidt will assess the merits of the case.
Ill. Gov. Pat Quinn is defending the state's civil union law in a dispute with a Catholic adoption agency.
State officials say they won't renew foster care or adoption contracts with Catholic Charities. The organization has received state money in the past, but Catholic Charities has said it would not comply with the new civil unions law signed by Quinn.
Quinn said the law granting gay couples many of the same rights as married couples is staying put.
"We're not going back," Quinn said. "Any organization that decides that because of the civil unions law that they won't participate voluntarily in a program, that's their choice."
Quinn said another agency is helping coordinate more adoption services. There are four Catholic Charities offices around Illinois.
The Urbana city council has given preliminary approval for two tax increases to help boost the salaries of union employees.
The 1 percent sales tax on package liquor, and hiking the city's hotel-motel tax from 5-to 6-percent are both on next Monday's agenda. They would pay for raises through AFSCME and the Fraternal Order of Police, as well as an additional officer.
Alderman Dennis Roberts cast the only no vote in Monday night's committee of the whole meeting, but only because he felt residents needed time to weigh in on the measure.
"We're not in a crushing situation," Roberts said. "The need to jump ahead a month to acquire one month's revenue doesn't seem to serve the city, citizens as well as I would like to see it."
The council will also vote next week on Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to veto Urbana's $72,000 for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors' Bureau. Prussing wants to use the funds for two police positions.
The CVB's Jayne DeLuce spoke out against the plan Monday night, as did Raymond Ceresa of Eastland Suites, who credits the bureau for $70,000 in room revenue in the past year.
Alderman Charlie Smyth said he is looking for new revenue sources if Prussing's plan is approved.
One possible source - the city has received $19,000 for a year's worth of property tax money from Provena Covenant Medical Center.
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