Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 24, 2011

Champaign Council Members Give Initial Backing to Stormwater Fee

A Champaign city council member says a proposed stormwater utility fee goes beyond the problems of a couple of neighborhoods, and impacts the city's marketability to prospective residents and businesses.

Marci Dodds and other council members unanimously backed the plan for a tiered fee system in Tuesday night's study session. She has heard years of complaints from residents who have seen their streets, basements, and backyards flooded by excessive rain.

Dodds said the problem came to head about ten years ago.

"The council and the city then took a step back and looked at the stormwater problem as a whole," she said. "They said 'Ok, where are the low points - let's start with those, and then work our way upstream. I mean really, how are you ever going to invest in this town if you're taking a canoe down Green Street?"

The tiered system means the majority of homeowners would pay less than $4 a month. Anyone with more than 6,000 square feet of impervious area on their property, like roofs or driveways, would pay close to $8 a month. And those with 8,000 or more square feet of such an area would pay about $10 monthly. But Dodds said residents can avoid paying the fee by investing in a rain barrel or rain garden, and earning credits in return from the city.

Champaign Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt said he recognizes there hasn't been a lot of public input on the idea yet. A committee formed by his department will be doing some outreach over the next several months.

Schmidt said the panel will meet with park districts, school districts, homeowners' groups and apartment owners to explain why the fee is needed, and how it will affect individuals. He said the city has identified about $80-million in needed stormwater improvements.

"Whether you're talking about 4th and Green (Streets), flooding viaducts, flooding in the John Street or Washington Street areas, I think the flooding is well documented in this community," Schmidt said. "I think there's other issues of areas where there's just no stormwater handling capabilities at all in the area."

Schmidt said discussions on the fee won't resume until February, so it if the plan passes, it will likely be 2013 before residents paying start it.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 24, 2011

Illinois Firm Leaving for Indiana

Illinoisans are known for crossing into Indiana for cheap cigarettes, cheap gas and now cheaper costs of doing business it seems. On Tuesday, Indiana officials rolled out the red carpet in introducing the latest Illinois firm to leave the state.

Modern Drop Forge, a manufacturing firm in south suburban Blue Island, Illinois, will move its operations 30 miles to the east to a now vacant facility to Merrillville, Indiana.

Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels announced the company's intentions at a Tuesday morning press conference.

"We operate on the theory that let's make it as affordable as possible to come and hire Hoosiers," Daniels said. "Creating a climate that attracts successful, growing companies like Modern Forge to Indiana is our top priority. Since day one, we have worked hard to make Indiana the top jobs state in the country and Modern Forge will benefit from our strong infrastructure, skilled workforce and business friendly environment."

Modern Drop Forge is a family-owned business with operations in four states, employing some 700 people. It manufactures parts for aerospace, truck and recreational vehicles.

Greg Heim owns the company that's been in business, getting its start in Blue Island in 1914.

He says officials with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) and the Town of Merrillville, worked with his company to make an attractive offer to lure the company.

IEDC offered Modern Drop Forge $2 million in performance-based tax credits and up to $200,000 in training grants based on the company's job creation plans.

The city of Merrillville, meanwhile, provided additional property tax abatements.

But in the end, Heim said the cost of doing business in Illinois proved too much, especially with the state increasing its corporate income tax by 67 percent in January. The actual rate increased from 4.7 percent to 7 percent until 2015.

"I haven't talked to anybody (manufacturers in Illinois) that's said, 'Boy, Illinois is wonderful and why would I want to leave," Heim said.

Heim says he does feel badly about leaving Blue Island, a city that's done so much for his company.

"We have to do what's best. When you're in a family business, you have to think back over time about the people who have made it possible for you to be at where you are at today, and hope to God that they agree with our decisions. It's tough," Heim said.

Heim says when the company makes its move to Merrillville, its Blue Island plant will shut down. But Merrillville, largely a bedroom community with little industry, won't get all the jobs that are now in Blue Island. Heim said of the 260 jobs, about 240 will be moved to Merrillville's southeast side, just east of the well-known Westfield Shoppingtown "Southlake" Mall on U.S. 30 and east of Interstate 65.

Current Modern Drop Forge employees will be offered a chance at those jobs in Merrillville, but some will be filled by Merrillville area residents, Heim said.

Merrillville Town Council member Shawn Pettit says the move by Modern Drop Forge will help the town to shore up its finances. It's been running in the red ever since Indiana moved to a property tax cap for homeowners and businesses.

"It's going to be a shot in the arm for the local economy. The job creation is outstanding. The expansion that they're talking about is going to mean more tax dollars into the town," Pettit said.

The announcement by Modern Drop Forge comes on the heels of railroad operator CN decision to move some 250 jobs from the south suburbs to Gary, Indiana, while investing millions to upgrade a rail yard there.

While the news is good for Indiana, it's angering many in Illinois.

On Tuesday, Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady took aim at Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

"Governor Quinn and the Democrats in Springfield continue to fail us. The only way we can bring jobs back to Illinois is by making Illinois an attractive place to do business," Brady said. "Being the state with the fifth-highest corporate income tax, over 7,000 units of local government to deal with, an overly burdensome regulatory environment and a haven for trial lawyers with a heavy dose of corruption does not attract jobs to Illinois."

But Quinn administration is firing back.

"The Administration reached out to Modern Drop Forge with a competitive business package," Quinn said in a written statement. "We remain focused on solutions that will revitalize our economy in the short- and long-term, including getting our fiscal house in order after years of mismanagement, making Illinois more globally competitive and investing in infrastructure and education to create and grow more jobs."

Quinn said the state of Illinois led the Midwest in job growth last year, and is first in the Midwest for exports and foreign company investment, including more than 1,500 foreign companies with locations in llinois.

"But the reality is that Midwestern states will need to work together more, not less, to market the region to global visitors and business. An approach that focuses solely on picking off a neighboring state's businesses is short-sighted; it's a losing strategy for our region."

But Daniels insists he isn't trying to start a border war with Illinois and doesn't take issue with it for raising its corporate income tax.

"It's not for me to give advice to anybody else. Every state has to make its own decisions and I respect that," Daniels said. "I never say anything negative about anywhere else. I believe the competition is healthy for us all. But I'm just going to tell them ... Indiana is now, along with a couple of Sun Belt states, is everybody's pick as the best place to do business, the best place to hire people and have a good chance to get your money back. We make no apologies for ... building that climate and we're all for going on and marketing."

And true to his comment, Daniels planned on visiting other Chicago area firms on Tuesday to make his best pitch as to why they should make a run for the border.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

City Leaders, Activist Look Ahead to Police Chief Search

A Champaign City Council member says the search for a new police chief should be an opportunity to build upon community ties that retiring Chief R.T. Finney has already established.

Will Kyles also sits on Champaign Community and Police Partnership, or C-CAP. The council member praises Finney for his efforts to heal already strained relations that worsened following the 2009 police shooting death of teenager Kiwane Carrington. Finney announced his retirement, effective January 20th, on Friday.

Kyles says the community needs direct, one-on-one interactions with officers, something he says has started with the 50-plus community meetings the last couple of years. And he hopes the city can hire someone new prior to Finney's retirement date.

"An interim person can build on certain things, but realistically, people do look for the sole title of chief, not interim chief," said Kyles. "When you have an interim, it just kind of changes the focus. It changes what we expect from that person."

Kyles also hopes a new police chief can also work to increase the number of minorities within the police department. He's interested in serving on the panel being assembled to search for Finney's replacement.

Fellow city council member Michael LaDue also says he'd like to help seek out a new police chief, but says he's not concerned about having to name someone on an interim basis, saying Champaign has two effective deputy chiefs. But LaDue says the city also has ample time to discuss this transition.

Meanwhile, a local activist sees Finney's retiring as an opportunity for a fresh start. Champaign County Board member Carol Ammons says she and other members of CU-Citizens for Peace and Justice have wanted Finney to step down since Carrington's death.

Ammons, who's been involved in the selection of last two police chiefs in Urbana, says that city marks the difference between a community led police chief and a militarization-led chief. She says the panel the city is organizing to name Champaign's new chief needs to be balanced.

"People that will bring a different perspective to the table, and people that might make you uncomfortable," said Ammons. "I would give you the example of the jury commission that was set up by (Champaign) County. A lof of people on that commitee have a totally different philosphy than, for instance, the chief judge. They've been able to work together in a very amicable way."

Finney was on the call of a break-in when Carrington died in October 2009. The officer whose gun discharged was placed on leave, but not charged with a crime, as the shooting was ruled an accident. But Finney remained on duty. Ammons says police-community relations in Champaign have gone downhill since that time.

If a new chief isn't named when Finney leaves the department, Ammons says she opposes naming an interim from within the department, claiming poor community relations go deeper than Finney.

Categories: Community, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Champaign Co. Health Care Group Demands EPA Look at Pipeline

A health care advocacy group is renewing its call on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to investigate an underground pipeline in Champaign's Fifth and Hill neighborhood.

Champaign County Health Care Consumers held a news conference Tuesday in the neighborhood, and cited a recent report that identified chemical waste in the pipeline know as "coal tar" as petroleum-based. The group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said the toxins are likely linked to a gas manufacturing plant that had been in the area from 1887 until 1953.

"This is like a sleeping giant underground," she said. "It's highly toxic. One of the problems with the material that we found is that these contaminants can also leach off and can spread and move through the groundwater and through the soil."

But Eleanor Blackmon, who's an assistant engineer in the city of Champaign, said the pipe has been dry every time it has been inspected.

"We inspected it after rains from the time that (Champaign County Health Care Consumers) expressed their concerns about it," Blackmon said. "We never saw any outflow from the pipe. The dirt inside the pipe was always dry."

Furthermore, Blackmon said there is no way to connect the pipeline to the old manufactured gas plant.

The city agreed this year to plug the pipe facing Boneyard Creek after Champaign County Health Consumers filed a notice of intent to sue the city over cleaning it up.

The Illinois EPA said it is already looked at the site, and that any toxins that might be there are so far underground that they don't pose a health risk to people living in the area.

"We have done an investigation and this was our finding that no one was at risk,' Illinois EPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said. "Secondarily, even if it were connected to the site, our primary concern would be is someone at risk? And the answer here is 'No.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

State Commerce Agency Says Tourist Spending Up in East Central Illinois

Tourism dollars were up in East Central Illinois in 2010. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity cites figures from the U-S Travel Association showing that tourism dollars rose last year in Champaign, Vermilion, Douglas, Piatt, Ford and Iroquois Counties.

In Vermilion County, tourists contributed $70.5 million dollars to the local economy in 2010, up 6.2% from 2009.

Jeanne Cooke of the Danville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau says Vermilion County tourism dollars had dipped in 2009 to $66.34 million --- she blames the recession for cutting into business travel that year. But she says last year's showing brought the county back up to 2007 levels.

"We're really happy about that", says Cooke, "because we had anticipated that it might take us as much as three years to return to our 2007 figure."

Now, despite recent shocks to the national and global economy, Cooke hopes that a variety of things to do in Vermilion County will keep the tourists coming.

"For example, we just finished the Walldogs (outdoor mural) event", says Cooke. "The end of September, we have Civil War Days that brings people from all over annually. We have the NJCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championships. We have outstanding state and county parks --- 15,000 acres."

The DCEO says the economic impact of tourism in east-central Illinois ranged from $5.8 million in Piatt County to $266.1 million in Champaign County. Iroquois County, with $29 million in tourism dollars, saw the sharpest increase by percentage last year --- 8.4%. The figures are based on purchases of such things as restaurant meals, hotel rooms and gasoline by out-of-towners.

Summary of US Travel Association data released by DCEO: Economic Impact of Tourism in 2010

Champaign County: $266.1 million, up 5.9% Douglas County: $30.6 million, up 3.1% Ford County: $5.4 million, up 3.7% Iroquois County: $29.0 million, up 8.4% Piatt County: $5.9 million, up 5.3% Vermilion County: $70.5 million, up 6.2%


AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Ind. Asks Residents to Report Tremors from Quake

Indiana residents who felt Tuesday's earthquake that shook the East Coast are being urged to report those tremors to a federal agency.

The state Department of Homeland Security and the Indiana Geological Survey is asking Hoosiers to submit online reports if they felt any tremors at 1:53 p.m. Tuesday, when a magnitude 5.9 quake centered below Mineral, Va., rattled the East Coast.

People as far away as Michigan have reported feeling tremors from that quake. The more data scientists receive from other states where citizens reported feeling the earth shift the more accurately they can gauge the quake's intensity and the area affected by it.

To report feeling tremors, people should go to the U.S. Geological Survey website. Then, they should click on the "Did You Feel It? - Tell Us!'' link.

Categories: Government, Politics, Science

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 23, 2011

Champaign Official Responds to Anonymous E-mail Alleging Police Favoritism

Champaign city manager Steve Carter says there are two sides to every issue, and he says it is only fair to hear the police department's reply to an anonymous e-mail alleging favoritism among its leaders.

But Carter said changes have been made, including some agreed to Monday by the city's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners

The e-mail alleges that reference material for a 2008 lieutenant's exam had been used twice before, giving an edge to veterans who had already taken it. The e-mail also contends Sgt. Tom Walker held an advantage since he is friends with Lt. Scott Swan, who helped develop the test, one that Walker scored highly on.

But Carter said that test didn't result in any promotions, and he said new safeguards are now in place when it comes to giving exams.

"We utilized an outside testing firm to do the work," Carter said. "Our human resources department oversaw the entire process. And outside of some general guidance in terms of 'here are the issues' - policies and procedures of the department, issues that are important to them - the department really wasn't actively involved in the development of any of the questions."

Carter said the Champaign Police Department has also changed the oral interview process, so that officers are no longer on interview panels. Another accusation concerns ratings within the department. Carter said the city has now included separate officer rankings from the police chief, deputy chief, and lieutenants, so the impact of any one person is limited in terms of promotions.

The e-mail was sent to city officials on Friday, the same day that Police Chief R.T. Finney announced he was retiring on Jan. 20, 2012. The note came from the e-mail address "cpdintegrity@gmail.com." Carter says he hasn't set a date for a response from the police department, but he said it's important to give the police department time to respond.

"Whether it's one employee or a group of employees, we're concerned about that, and want to respond appropriately," Carter said. "We want all of our employees to feel like they're being treated fairly inside the organization. That's not to say that it would be unusual to have a situation where there aren't some employees who are unhappy with decisions made by supervisors. I think that's kind of a normal part of business.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Stage Collapse Lawsuits Could Challenge Ind. Same-Sex Marriage Rules

The first lawsuits filed over the Indiana State Fair stage collapse could challenge the state's rules on same sex marriage.

Attorney Kenneth Allen said his clients were recently married in Hawaii, a state that allows same sex civil unions. Beth Urschel was injured in the stage collapse. Her spouse, Tammy VanDam, died from the incident.

Allen said the lawsuits address a legal gray area in Indiana.

"Tammy was her wife and Beth is entitled to be treated as any spouse should be treated: fairly, equitably and justly under the law," he said Monday. "That's something we intend to challenge because as it stands now, Indiana law does not recognize her as a spouse and we expect to change that.

Allen said the court is the best place to address the issue because the state legislature hasn't taken action. Allen is seeking more than $50 million in damages on behalf of Urschel and the estate of VanDam.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Victim of Ind. State Fair Stage Collapse to be Organ Donor

The family of a cheerleading coach from Ohio who suffered brain injuries when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair says they've decided to "allow her to be at peace."

The family of 24-year-old Meagan Toothman says it became apparent Sunday night "that our Meagan was no longer with us." The family writes in an online journal posting that an organ donation surgery is planned for later Monday.

Marchele Hall of the Marion County coroner's office says Toothman is on life support at Methodist Hospital. Authorities earlier announced she had been pronounced dead.

Six others have died from injuries suffered when powerful winds toppled the stage onto fans waiting for the country act Sugarland to perform Aug. 13.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - August 22, 2011

Champaign Unit 4 Opens New Magnet Schools

One the two magnet schools starting up in Champaign Monday will immediately expose its students to other cultures and languages.

For the expanded and renovated Garden Hills Elementary, it's taken on an international baccalaureate program. Principal Cheryl O'Leary says students and visitors will right away notice the international hallway, representing the heritage of students from overseas.

She says each grade level will partner with a school from another country, and each student will learn Mandarin Chinese. And O'Leary says international baccalaureate schools are also required to focus on 10 learner profiles - words like inquiry, open-minded, and principled.

"We have those written above throughout the hallways in the building in five different languages for the children as they go through the halls " she said. "They'll have to know what it's like to be an inquirer and what it's like to be curious. So those are some of things that we'll be instilling in them pretty young during inquiry-based learning, and hoping that it continues on in their middle and high school years."

O'Leary says planning at Champaign Unit 4's district level should allow younger students, particularly those in kindergarten, to continue similar lessons once they reach middle school.

Just over 400 students attended Garden Hills last year. An April lottery was held for additional students wanting to attend the district's two magnet schools. That will boost Garden Hills' attendance to more than 520 this fall, near capacity for the building.

Unit 4's other magnet school opening Monday, the new Booker T. Washington Elementary, carries the STEM theme, or focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math.

School principal Asia Fuller-Hamilton says it's her hope that the students develop a love for science, have an appreciation for it as they grow older, and perhaps seek out a career in it. The program will allow the school to collaborate with the U of I's I-STEM initiative.

Fuller-Hamilton says lessons integrating the subjects will literally be all around the students.

"We want to be able to answer the question, 'Why do I need to do this math problem? Why do I need to learn this about these people, or about this in science?' We try to show them how it all goes together," she said. "And actually, the way that the building is built, it allows them to do that. The gym has geometric shapes as well as area and diameter math concepts on the flooring."

The school itself includes laptops for students, conference rooms at every grade level, art and music rooms, and a reservoir for rain water in order for students to maintain a garden. Prairie grass will be planted outside, keeping students from having to travel to a park to connect with those lessons.

About 300 students will attend the new Booker T. Washington school this fall.

A tour of Champaign's Booker T. Washington Elementary School from Illinois Public Media on Vimeo.

 

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

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