Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 19, 2011

Urbana City Council Upholds Mayor’s Veto of CVB Funding

The Urbana City Council has narrowly upheld Mayor Laurel Prussing's veto of funding for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Council members voted 4-to-3 against overriding Prussing's veto of those funds.

Some council members say they wanted to find some funding for the agency, but also wanted more evidence of its performance. Members agreed the the department offers a valuable service, but not at a level of $72,000 a year. The mayor wants to use the money for two police positions instead.

Alderwoman Diane Marlin said she regrets the council was being forced to choose, saying Urbana needed both economic development and public safety.

CVB President and CEO Jayne DeLuce said she is looking forward to engaging in additional dialogue with the city, and finding a funding level that leaders are comfortable with.

"I think for a long time, there has been some opportunities where maybe there hadn't been engagment in the past," DeLuce said. "And I'm all willing to do that. Because we have the documentation of what we do. We have great things that we're trying to move forward with. But we do truly need countywide support to be able to do that, because it's really hard to be able to look at say, 'how do you move forward without one of the major stakeholders in the picture?"

DeLuce said the CVB now needs to do a better job of reporting its value to stakeholders, something she says wasn't done well before she arrived 18 months ago.

Alderman Charlie Smyth said discussions will start with $20,000 dollars of unallocated funds to the CVB, and build from there over the next few weeks. But he said any agreement will include expectations in terms of performance.

"I think there's sentiment on the council to fund CVB at some level that we think is appropriate that we can afford," Smyth said. "And at the same time, there's a legitimate concern that we get our money's worth from them."

Aldermen Dennis Roberts, Robert Lewis, Diane Marlin and Charlie Smyth supported Prussing by voting against the override, while Brandon Bowersox, Eric Jakobsson, and Heather Stevenson voted to override. Smyth said he hopes to find about $50,000 by time talk on CVB funding wraps up, likely sometime in August.

Marlin also said she was happy to see the Champaign County Board is considering a funding level of its own for the CVB at its meeting on Thursday.

The city council has also finalized a 1-percent tax on package liquor, along with hiking Urbana's hotel-motel tax from 5 to 6 percent. It's expected to raise $270,000 and pay for raises for the city's AFSCME and police unions. Only Alderwoman Heather Stevenson voted down the fee hikes, saying she was never contacted by Prussing about them, and did not have time to gauge their impact from local businesses.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 18, 2011

Casino Opens In Des Plaines

After a decade of legal battles, Illinois 10th casino has finally opened.

Gamblers flocked to the Rivers Casino's grand opening in Des Plaines Monday. The license had long been dormant since originally being approved for the city of Rosemont in 1999.

In 1997, a gambling boat failed in East Dubuque, freeing up a 10th casino license. That began the saga of communities wrangling to sweep it up, with cities betting on a casino's ability to increase municipal revenues. For a time, Rosemont was going to be the spot, until fears of mob ties required a bidding redo. The Illinois Gaming Board finally awarded the coveted license to Des Plaines in 2008.

Gov. Pat Quinn says he respects that drawn-out process.

"I think that is a model that we need to keep an eye on," Quinn said. "It was a very competitive process and the gaming board, our Illinois Gaming Board, the regulators oversaw that process and ensured maximum competition."

The opening of the Des Plaines casino comes after lawmakers recently passed a measure that would massively expand gambling in the state for Chicago, Danville, Rockford, a south Chicago suburb, and Lake County.

The measure still has not been sent to Gov. Quinn, who has not indicated what action he will take on the bill when he gets it. Though, Quinn has been less enthusiastic about the plan, calling it "top heavy."

Gaming Board Chairman Aaron Jaffe has been highly critical of letting politicians decide casinos' locations.

It is expected Rivers Casino's success could be hampered by adding more casinos in and around Chicago.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 18, 2011

Twenty-One Illinoisans on Obama ‘Bundler’ List

About twenty Illinois residents have made the list of big campaign fundraisers for President Obama's re-election effort.

The Obama campaign late last week released a list of about 250 people they're calling "volunteer fundraisers." The more common name for these big ticket supporters, though, is "bundlers." They each raised more than $50,000 for the campaign by getting their friends to give, too.

The list includes the chairman and CEO of ComEd, Frank Clark, and a co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, Laura Ricketts. Also highlighted: Penny Pritzker, who led Mr. Obama's 2008 fundraising committee, and Michael Sacks, an investment banker who last week was appointed to help lead a business commission by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel, a recent White House chief of staff, didn't himself donate to his old boss, or make the list of big bundlers. But his brother, Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, did.

All told, the president raised some $86 million since beginning his fundraising drive in April. That is when he visited Chicago for an evening of back-to-back-to-back events.

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Blagojevich Returns to Court to Hear Bond Details

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told a federal judge Friday that he understands he could lose his home if he violates the conditions of his bond.

Lawyers for Blagojevich say the former governor and his wife are trying to sell their home on Chicago's North Side. News of the home sale came during the hearing where Judge James Zagel increased Blagojevich's bond to $450,000.

The former governor is considered a greater flight risk now that he is facing substantial prison time.

The Blagojevich's are using their home and a condo to secure the bond, but Blagojevich's attorneys hoped to exclude the house to make it easier to sell. Judge Zagel said both properties have to be put up.

"Patti and I were here to comply as we always try to do, with all the different rules and we signed all the necessary papers to comply with the bond requirements," Blagojevich said after the hearing.

The Blagojevich's say between their home and condo, they have about $600,000 in equity.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Champaign Unveils Transformed Houses

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 15, 2011

Chicago Mayor Laying Off Up to 625 Workers

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)

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Indiana Ends Budget Year with $1.2B Surplus

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.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Parkland College Secures Remaining Funding for Expansion

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)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 14, 2011

Prosecutors: Blagojevich Not Fulfilling Bond Terms

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 12, 2011

Vermilion County Board Approves Wind Turbine Ordinance

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.


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