Illinois Public Media News
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.
Urbana's city council will resume its discussion later this month on a proposed panhandling ordinance.
More than half of Monday night's four-hour committee of the whole meeting consisted of public comments with all but one person against the idea. The ordinance was suggested by Mayor Laurel Prussing on behalf of residents of Southeast Urbana. It doesn't ban panhandling per se. Tough, it does create restrictions on where it can happen. For example, it would be prohibited in Philo Road's Business District, on private property, and other designated locations, like near an ATM or bus stop.
The measure would also impact what is called 'aggressive' panhandling. Alderwoman Diane Marlin has heard of a number of recent panhandling cases, most of them involving seniors.
"A woman called me to tell me that she was driving to the gym on Colorado Avenue," she said. "And at 5:45 in the morning, her car was stopped in the middle of the street. A person was standing in the middle of the street, stopped her car, and demanded money. This woman felt threatened."
Esther Patt told council members in Monday night's committee of the whole meeting that protecting people in some areas, like near an ATM is fine, but the city should not infringe on a panhandler's speech.
"To make unlawful the utterance of words is reprehensible," Patt said. "It's un-American. And it's not necessary to accomplish your purpose."
The one backer of the ordinance among the public was Theresa Michaelson, who said seniors are afraid in the Philo Road Business District, where they're essentially trapped if approached by a panhandler in a fast food drive-thru.
Marlin said the ordinance as written strikes a balance between an individual's right to panhandle, protected under the First Amendment, and the public's right to be free of harassment. However, she said there is nothing to keep the city council from tweaking the measure when members take it up again July 25th.
Urbana Police Chief Patrick Connolly said officers have received more than 80 such complaints since last year.
Opponents question how police will interpret which panhandlers are violating the ordinance, as well as $165 fines against violators who probably don't have the money. Connolly said police would likely issue warnings on a first offense, but violators could also be sentenced to community service.
Talk on the proposal resumes July 25th.
A member of a panel looking at issues related to hunger says while state funding remains a concern, some are not aware of federally-funded programs literally in their own backyard.
Kate Maehr co-chairs the Illinois Commission to End Hunger. She was among those taking testimony Sunday from migrant farm workers in Rantoul at the first of eight meetings statewide to discuss access to food in rural areas. Maeher said the key now is connecting people to the federally-funded SNAP program, or summer meal programs in schools. She cited what she calls 'poignant' testimony from one of the migrant workers, who discussed visiting a local food pantry.
"He said you (operators of pantries) should ask questions," Maeher said. "When people come in for a bag of food, ask them if they're getting a paycheck. Ask them if they have other things they need. I think that's a really important reminder for all of us. Sometimes we get caught in our silos, whether it's to get a bag of food or some other service, it's really incumbent upon us to extend ourselves to find out if there are other things that individual may need."
Maehr said only 15-percent of those eligible for the school-based summer meal programs are taking advantage of them.
Donna Camp with the Wesley Evening Food Pantry in Urbana said her facility often tries to deliver bags of food to migrant farm workers, since they'll be working after the pantry closes at 7:30. Camp said the testimony from the event in Rantoul didn't surprise her, but she did not know how much state funding had been cut to the Illinois Migrant Council, which does outreach for the SNAP program. Camp said many resources exist within communities if they learn to share with one another.
"How can the employers work with community organizations, government or non-profit, to have food ready when workers arrive in town?" she said. "How can school districts get involved? The children of these workers are being educated. This year, the Urbana school district has the contract to do that in our area."
Camp said while SNAP benefits are important, there are a number of undocumented workers who are not eligible for the program. She said her food pantry will keep tabs on the state commission and its recommendations, with hopes it responds better to the needs of migrant workers.
(Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann)
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.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media)
Illinois' Supreme Court has ruled that a statewide construction program is constitutional. This reverses an appellate court ruling that threw the $31 billion plan into doubt.
The case involves a plan lawmakers approved in 2009. They decided to pay for the construction by raising taxes on liquor and candy, as well as legalizing video gambling at bars and truck stops.
The projects have created construction jobs across Illinois.
In the much anticipated final ruling on the legislation, all seven justices sided with Gov. Pat Quinn and the bipartisan leadership in the legislature, which endorsed the plan.
Justice Anne Burke wrote that "capital projects" - including those for roads, schools and bridges - is a "legitimate single subject." Burke added that the rest of the bill - including new taxes and expanded video gambling to pay for the projects - have a "natural and logical connection to that subject."
Governor Pat Quinn expressed his gratitude for the ruling.
"It was enacted by the legislature, signed by the Governor - the executive branch, upheld by the judicial branch," Quinn said. "Now we have a law now that's a model for building in our state, and in every other state."
Union officials, like AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan, say Illinois workers should welcome a court ruling.
Carrigan said the court's decision protects a program that puts Illinois "solidly at the forefront'' in job creation by keeping construction workers, manufacturers, and suppliers doing the kind of work that moves a community forward.
"When you sit down with the various communities, the regions, their economic development arm, practically every one of those councils as part of what they need for their community to go forward is some kind of infrastructure improvement," Carrigan said. "Whether it's widening two lanes to four lanes, whether it's a bypass, a bridge."
James Sweeney of the International Union of Operating Engineers said the ruling removes "a black cloud'' hanging over jobs that support hundreds of thousands of people.
The lawsuit was brought by Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who also owns a liquor distributorship. He argued the law was unconstitutional that it increased the tax on liquor by more than $4 a gallon while the new tax on beer went up less than five cents. Wirtz's attorneys also alleged the package violated a requirement that laws stick to a single subject.
The Illinois Supreme Court's decision may have an impact on how legislators draft future bills, according to University of Illinois political science professor Jim Nowlan.
The court unanimously decided that the package of different tax increases and gambling expansion to pay for the program did not violate a rule that bills only cover one subject, but Nowlan said the argument over just what constitutes a single subject is not over.
"The revenue increases, which were of various types, were all necessary and pertinent to support the capital construction," Nowlan said. "I think the single subject requirement of the constitution will be revisited in the future as suggested by this trail of litigation."
Nowlan said the courts are still refining the definition of a "single subject," and legislators may try again to wrap future topics together under one overarching objective like capital construction.
(With additional reporting by Illinois Public Media)
A major state employee union has filed a federal lawsuit over Illinois Governor Pat Quinn's decision to cancel raises for thousands of workers.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees filed the suit Friday in Springfield, arguing that the Governor's action is a violation of provisions against the impairment of contracts found in the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions. The union says by violating the union's collective bargaining agreement, it amounts to a breach of contract under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.
AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer says its members "deserve to know that their employer, the governor, will keep his word and honor his commitments under the law."
The union's suit asks a federal judge to rescind a pay freeze recently announced by Quinn.
On Thursday, the union announced it had sought an arbitrator's ruling on Quinn's decision last week to ditch $75 million in raises for 30,000 workers to help deal with the state's budget crisis.
The Champaign Unit 4 school board expects to begin interviewing candidates for a new superintendent sometime in September.
But the position has yet to be posted, and board member Tom Lockman said that is partly because the district is letting the public to give their input. A search firm has started some informal recruitment, but there have also been more than 300 replies to community surveys on the district's web site. Former superintendent Arthur Culver resigned at the end of June, and Bob Malito is serving in an interim role for 100 days.
But Lockman said the board wants to make they hire someone the community wants, and that is the reason for the public surveys and two search committees involving the public in the process.
"We certainly have our opinions, and a lot of that we draw from what we hear in the community," he said. "But this is such an important part of what we do. I mean, it's the biggest thing that we will do as a board is make a decision on superintendent, and making sure the community is involved in that process."
Lockman said the school board and a search firm have some qualifications in mind, while the surveys highlight some priorities as well.
"There are certainly some themes in there, and certainly some answers that are more popular that others," he said. "And I think as we continue to talk about it, that will become apparent as well. But I think we have anything set specifically - this person has to have this person has to have this many years of experience, or has to have this kind of education. We have specified any of that at this point."
Lockman said most of the input thus far has come from Unit 4 staff, but the district is starting to find some common themes among the surveys.
A tentative timeline calls for the school district to name four to seven finalists by November, with hopes of hiring someone by December.
The new superintendent would start next July.
The former director of a historic Chicago-area cemetery has been convicted in a money-making scheme that involved digging up bodies and reselling plots.
The Cook County State's Attorney's office says 51-year-old Carolyn Towns pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Towns was director of Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip when prosecutors say she and three workers desecrated hundreds of graves.
Prosecutors say Towns stole more than $100,000 from the corporation that owned Burr Oak by keeping the payments for graves and having workers stack bodies or dump remains in unmarked mass graves. Three other former Burr Oak workers have been charged and are scheduled to appear in court next week.
Many famous African-Americans are buried at Burr Oak, including lynching victim Emmett Till.
The head of a group representing Illinois regional superintendents says the state's regional education offices will remain open despite Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of funding for salaries.
Bob Daiber is president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. He said Friday regional superintendents will fulfill their duties, which include inspecting schools and checking employee backgrounds.
He says the group met with Quinn's staff about how to pay superintendents and their assistants. He says there will be future meetings to work out details.
Quinn used his veto power to eliminate $11.3 million for the superintendents before he signed the budget last week.
The state's budget director has said the 44 superintendents may go without pay for several months until a deal can be worked out with lawmakers.
A member of a Vermilion County panel that has signed off on a license for a large wind farm on the county's west side says further qualifications will be required for the project
According to Bill Donahue, the Wind Turbine Regulatory Committee said his panel's job was not to weigh the merits of wind farms, but to make sure Chicago-based Invenergy met all the requirements of the county's wind ordinance. Donahue said there is a continuing process involved.
"Just because you've got the permit doesn't mean the heat is off," Donahue said. "We monitor any changes they notify us about, if there's substantial changes and if they want to do something drastically different, we may have a new hearing. So it's not like it's all said and done and over and we pretend they don't exist. There's an ongoing relationship that's going to continue throughout the life of the project."
The Vermilion County Board will take up the recommendation when it meets Tuesday night at 6 p.m. The committee approved the plans Wednesday night. The 134 turbine wind farm would start in an area northeast of Kickapoo State Park, and extend into eastern Champaign County. Donahue said there have only been a handful of concerns citing noise and shadow flicker caused by turbines, but county board members will have to weigh those.
"They (opponents) like the way their land is now, they don't even want to see wind turbines," he said. "And I understand that. The difficulty, of course, is that there are other landowners who want that economic development. They're the ones who have leased the land out. And even if we were in the business of trying to make value judgments and I'm not, the community does have some interest in economic development, and I think we're right to begin weighing those things."
About 30 of the turbines would be located in Champaign County, just north of Royal and south of Gifford. But Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the application has not been received yet. Champaign County's Zoning Board of Appeals could take up Invenergy's proposal in late August.
An Invenergy spokeswoman said the company can't comment on its plans at this point, but in a released statement, says the two counties are an "optimal location for a successful wind project, with an excellent wind resource and strong community support.'"
Invenergy has developed 26 wind farms in the US, Canada, and Europe.
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