Illinois Public Media News
A long-troubled resort inside Shelby County's Eagle Creek State Park is now in the hands of a new manager which promises an extensive makeover.
The state-owned hotel, conference center and golf course were closed last summer after years of declining business - mold had crept into the hotel, making it a significant challenge for the next manager. But the winner of the contract, Mike Ballinger of Decatur-based BMDD Resorts, says his firm will invest in Eagle Creek and try to make it profitable.
"It's going to be a 3.8 million dollar project," Ballinger said. "It's going to be more obviously if something unforeseen pops up. There's a mold remediation. The roof needs to be repaired. Drywall needs to be removed in some areas. Major cleaning."
Ballinger says it will take about a year to reopen the conference center, but the golf course could be open as soon as next month.
Ballinger's firm won the contract over four other bidders last winter - one of the losing bidders, nearby marina owner Dennis Fayhee, unsuccessfully challenged the state's decision claiming BMDD had a conflict of interest. Fayhee and his attorney have not been available to say whether they plan to further challenge the contract.
A referendum on township property taxes in Champaign will go on the ballot this fall --- nine months later than intended.
The Champaign City Council voted Tuesday night to place the advisory referendum on the November ballot. It asks Champaign voters if they want to increase their township property tax to provide more General Assistance for the poor.
Voters at last year's annual town meeting approved the referendum for placement on this year's primary ballot, but it was omitted by mistake.
City of Champaign Township Supervisor Pam Borowski was running for the office she now holds when the referendum was proposed. Borowski said the law requires that the measure get on the ballot this November, even though she said hopes it fails. "There's not a need for additional tax revenues at this point in time, and until there is, I'm going to keep saying that we don't need more new property taxes," she said.
The imitative would raise the township tax rate to match General Assistance funding levels in Urbana and other comparable cities. Champaign voters approved a similar advisory referendum in 2008, but rejected a binding referendum for a township tax hike later that same year.
Now that a program meant to stimulate more college-age voting has become law, one county clerk who spoke out against the bill has to figure out how to implement it.
Mark Shelden in Champaign County and some other clerks complained that the measure would be a financial hardship on counties. One of three voting bills signed by Governor Quinn over the weekend requires early voting sites to be set up on college campuses before each election.
Shelden says he has yet to choose a location on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus for such a center, but he says it will not be the centrally-located Illini Union, where active campaigh goes on during election season.
"Our polling place where we do early voting cannot be a hub of political speech -- it has to be a campaign free zone," said Shelden. "And so we'll be looking for a location that may be comparable to that in terms of traffic, but where we're able to regulate the speech activities during the 23-day period that we'll be conducting early voting." By law, campaigning is restricted around all polling sites, whether on Election Day or in early voting.
Supporters of the new law say the college early voting center will be available to all voters, not just students - opponents such as Shelden have said the centers would discriminate against voters in outlying areas by giving students easier access.
Budget constraints are forcing officials in Champaign County to end grand juries. The central Illinois county's final grand jury session is scheduled for July 22. The county uses grand juries to decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to take a felony charge case to trial. Grand juries were established in Champaign County during the 1980s.
Champaign County grand jurors serve for four months at a time, usually hearing between five and 16 cases per day. They are paid $10 a day plus mileage. Presiding Judge Tom Difanis says eliminating grand juries should save the county about $4,000 annually.
Officials in schools, universities and social service agencies around the state spent Friday parsing a new state budget signed by Gov. Pat Quinn that cuts $1.4 billion in spending.
Education will lose $241 million. But Illinois Association of School Boards lobbyist Ben Schwarm says schools are relieved general state aid will remain flat. That money makes up most of what public schools have to spend. Steep cuts were feared.
The budget cuts nearly $263 million from state grants for, among other things, programs for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
And many schools and others note they're still waiting on money the state can't afford to pay from the last fiscal year.
Governor Quinn signed a new state budget for Fiscal Year 2011 this week that cuts spending by $1.4 billion, as the state grapples with the biggest deficit in its history.
The budget includes $69,057,200 for the University of Illinois, which is 6.23% less than what lawmakers put in their version of the budget. Quinn made cuts of similar proportions to allocations for other state universities.
U of I Associate Vice President for Planning and Budgeting Randy Kangas notes that the university has still not received 38% of the state funding it was promised for fiscal year 2010. He says they worry that they might see similar cash-flow problems in the new budget year.
"So appropriation levels are good --- cash is better", says Kangas. "So, we have additional concerns if the state has the capacity to meet the appropriation levels, and that will be a continuing concern."
Kangas says U of I officials have been working for some time on plans for dealing with less state funding.
"The provosts are working very hard", says Kangas. "We have worked through the campus level, and now they will start working through the college and department level allocations."
But he says the plans are still in flux, because of what he calls the state's "unprecedented" financial problems, and the possibility that Governor Quinn may cut even more funding later in the year.
Additional reporting by Amanda Vinicky of Illinois Public Radio
On his first day on the job, new U of I President Michael Hogan admits he needs to be brought up to speed on some issues relating to Illinois' financial crisis.
But the 66-year old notes he's been through similar experiences while leading other universities, and thinks strategically about budgets. Hogan says it's a sad fact that the U of I, like other state schools, have to rely less on state funds - and will have look more at tuition, alumni donations, and research to generate revenue. He plans to spend a third of his time raising money.
But the former president of the University of Connecticut also hopes to avoid a second round of furlough days for university faculty and staff. "So my own disposition would be do try to deal with budget issues in different ways than relying on furloughs," said Hogan. "We can't rule them out right now, and I certainly wouldn't want to say anything definitive until I know more. But in principal, we had furlough days at U-Conn and others, and I know from experience they're very, very hard on faculty and staff morale."
Hogan also expects to get questions about his $620,000 dollar salary. He says it's in line with what other Big Ten Presidents receive... and plans to justify it over the next several months. "I think the question to be asked here is over the next year is 'what have I done to earn that salary," said Hogan. "And if I haven't done enough to earn that salary, I'm sure the board will want some adjustment made. And I intend to earn it. And I intend to bring in the university, one way or the other, a substantial amount more than I'm going to be taking out."
Hogan says he isn't sure yet about job cuts as part of a push to save money. But Former U of I President Stanley Ikenberry - who's leading what he calls a 'process redesign', says other cuts are likely.
Hogan also says he'll be do his best to be accessible. "I think it's a big university, even each part of the university, especially the Chicago campus and the Urbana campus are both by themselves, very large," said Hogan. "I think it helps if people know who the president is. I think by being engaged and being visible and being accessible - even one person, the president, maybe more than others, can help make a big university seem smaller. And that would be my goal." He comes to Illinois after being president of the University of Connecticut.
Gov. Pat Quinn has signed a new Illinois budget that will cut spending in many areas and allow the state's pile of unpaid bills to climb even higher.
The Chicago Democrat says he's doing his best to protect government services that help the economy, schools, health and public safety.
Rather than balance the budget, lawmakers voted to give Quinn special authority over spending. That means he'll decide which programs are slashed, which bills will go unpaid and which special funds will be raided.
Quinn said Thursday that he's using this authority to cut $1.4 billion in spending.
The past six months have seen Vermilion County's Health Department reduced to providing just a handful of services.
The transition to a minimum federally-certified facility means the department now offers only immunizations, emergency planning, environmental health, and the Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC program. Wednesday was the last day for the retiring Administrator Steve Laker, who's seen his staff reduced from 74 to 30 since the start of the year due to dwindling state funds. The department is still owed $600,000, and still has to pay back Vermilion County for a $300,000 loan. It also started furlough days a month ago, operating Monday thru Thursday. Laker says walk-in clinics for sexually transmitted disease, and family planning programs will be missed the most. "That's going to have a devestating effect on people," said Laker. "As far as real economic effects and perhaps social and financial effects down the road, due to unwanted pregancies. I can't send out a memo saying 'folks, it's a good idea to cease your sexual activities because you no longer have access to family planning services. I know it's not going to work."
Laker says Aunt Martha's Health Center in Danville is expected to pick up about half of what his department provided for family planning. But the federally-funded facility's director of health operations, Alice Sartore, says no one should be turned away, despite the limits of federal grant dollars. "Because just as any other grant-funded services, we know that our grant never covers the cost of the services." said Sartore. "But our adminstration here at Aunt Martha's is really in tune with the needs of all of the communities in which we operate community health centers." Aunt Martha's is based in suburban Chicago, and operates 18 locations throughout the state. Laker says he's been frustrated that he can't find a phone number for the Danville office. Sartore says the facility offers a toll-free number for all its clients, and those appointments with new ones in Vermilion County will start up in about two weeks. That phone number is 1-877-692-8686.
Meanwhile, Vermilion County's Health Department has hired a new administrator to replace Laker. Shirley Hicks has been with the department since 1985.
The state has come through with some last-minute funds for the University of Illinois as the fiscal year draws to a close.
That includes a payment of about $30 million reported Tuesday by Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr. U of I Interim President Stanley Ikenberry says that brings the state's backlog of payments to about $295-million, when it was more than $430 million back on December 31st. Ikenberry says while Illinois still needs to address its financial crisis as soon as possible - the U of I is getting more orderly state payments, and that's a surprise. But he says university staff has done everything it can to receive those funds.
"Our finance people have been unrelenting in their telephone calls to the comptroller's office to seek the payment of the bills," said Ikenberry. "..and to remind them that we're out here living from hand to mouth, and that we need the payment of those receivables." Ikenberry will step down from the role of interim president this week, turning over the office to new President Michael Hogan. The 75-year old has served as interim president since January, and was U of I President from 1979 to 1995.
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