Illinois Public Media News
A Douglas County Judge has ruled that an autistic 1st grader can continue bringing his service dog to school. Judge Michael Freese sided Tuesday with the family of 6-year old Kaleb Drew, saying 'Chewey' clearly functions as a service animal, keeping him calm and focused in class. Kaleb's mother, Nichelle Drew, says before the family got the Labrador retriever, her son often slept 2 to 3 hours at night, ran away from home, and they weren't able to take him to places like grocery stores and restaurants.
"We were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team that we didn't want anything to hinder that," says Drew. "We wanted it to be able to continue and for Kaleb just to be able to continue to experience life to the fullest. And I think that's what every parent wants for their child. As parent of a child with autism, it's something that I don't get to experience very often."
Attorneys for the Villa Grove school district argued the dog wasn't helping the child's development, and can be disruptive to other students and staff. Based on the testimony from school staff, Judge Freese noted problems in dealing with the dog at times. But he says the real problems were with a state statute that doesn't clearly define Chewey's role while accompanying Kaleb at school. Villa Grove schools attorney Brandon Wright says its legal team is still weighing its options, and could appeal the district's decision. He says a big problem lies with a state law that allows service animals in schools, but doesn't provide much guidance.
"When you have a student who is young and incapable of being the handler of a dog, what does that mean for the school in terms of its responsibility?," says Wright. "And this statute is silent on that and the judge recognized that conundrum for the school district." This case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to the state's law allowing service animals in schools. Authorities in both school districts have said that the boys' needs must be balanced against those of other children who have allergies or fear the animals.
A new dispute has erupted among a utility, environmental officials and neighbors near a Champaign site that decades ago hosted a manufactured gas plant.
Ameren has been treating soil and groundwater on the site but maintains that contamination from the residue buried in the soil has not leached out into the surrounding area. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers disputes that, and today they say a nearby water main replacement project is digging up some of that questionable soil.
The group's director, Claudia Lenhoff, says Illinois American Water, Ameren and the city left neighbors in the dark over the safety of the water main project.
"This corridor here should be tested in order to remove any doubt to whether it's safe or not to be digging this soil and into the groundwater," Lennhoff said. "Just a few feet that way (toward the site itself) is contaminated."
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the water company cleared the project with them. "We were aware of what they're doing. They are aware of what we're doing," Morris said. "They know what the extent of the contamination is. And there is no contamination that they would need to be concerned about.'
But one neighbor, Magnolia Cook, distrusts whatever Ameren is saying about the site's safety. "Ameren has never told us the truth about anything, so why would we believe what Ameren is saying as far as this site is concerned, "Cook said. "How come the Illinois EPA is not out here to see what's underneath this dirt while they're digging?"
Neighbors have questioned why the Illinois EPA issued a permit for the project using Ameren's test results. However, Randy West, local field operations superintendent with Illinois American Water, says they commissioned their own soil testing along the water main site, and found no evidence of any contamination from the old gas plant.
The State of Illinois plans to start its early release of inmates Tuesday. It's part of an effort to save money in the prison system. The move comes about four months after the state first announced the plan. As many as one thousand prisoners could eventually be let go before their sentences are complete.
Sixty two prisoners will be freed in this first group. Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says most of them currently live at the department's adult transition centers, "basically meaning that these are people who are already living and working in the community."
Smith says inmates housed in transition centers work or go to school in the day, but must return to the dorm-like facility at night.
Illinois has eight of them ... one each in Carbondale, Decatur and Peoria. The rest are in and around Chicago. Smith couldn't say from which of these the inmates will be released, but she expects it will be spread out over several locations.
Nor could Smith say where the newly-freed prisoners will go to. But she says local authorities have been notified.
Smith says the Department of Corrections is continuing evaluations to choose other eligible inmates. The department must deem them non-violent and low-level offenders, and they must have less than a year of their sentence left to serve.
A $123,454,993 county budget plan for the fiscal year starting December 1st passed through the Champaign County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night --- and comes up for a full county board vote November 19th.
The budget cuts spending from the county's General Corporate Fund by 7-point-2 percent from original 2009 budget plan. Unlike the 4-point-5 percent cuts made partway through FY 2009, these new cuts are targeted and permanent. County Adminstrator Deb Busey says they initially planned for cuts of 6 percent --- but had to go back and cut more as sales and income tax revenue continued to decline.
"We had to cut everything we could from Commodities, Services and Capital at that point", says Busey. "So we went back and focused on recently added positions, or offices where staffing levels are high than in offices in comparable counties. And we added additional personnel cuts to achieve the total 7.2% cut in General Corporate."
Busey says the cuts assume that county tax revenue has bottomed out, and won't fall any further in 2010. Meanwhile, the new budget plan raises spending by nearly ten million dollars at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, which handles everything from long-range urban planning to Head Start programs. Busey says the increase is due to new federal grants --- much of it courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The growth in the entire budget is almost entirely attributable to the Regional Planning Commission", says Busey.
The Finance Committee also approved a county property tax levy of $26,601,528 --- an increase of roughly 600-thousand dollars from the year before. Busey says that levy will produce an estimated property tax rate of 73.64 cents per $100 assessed valuation, down from the previous tax rate of 74.26 cents.
A shelter for women escaping domestic violence says slow state funding may force it to close before long.
The human resources manager of A Woman's Place in Urbana says there's no set date at which the shelter would need to close without funding. But Tara Bossert says she's had to lay off about a dozen employees. Services have been curtailed to little more than emergency housing for victims and their children as well as a 24 hour hotline, and the shelter may not meet payroll for a second straight pay period.
Bossert says the facility is getting little from the state Department of Human Services, other than sympathy.
"We talked to the comptroller's office because they ultimately release the payment to us, and they've basically given us the same answer -- they understand our situation, they sympathize. But they can't expedite anything because they don't have any money to release," Bossert said.
Carol Knowles is with the state comptroller's office, which funnels state money to A Woman's Place and other agencies. She says a lack of revenue is causing fund emergencies for many agencies, and it's hard to tell when payments will catch up.
Bossert says state officials have told her that A Woman's Place is near the top of the priority list for funding when it becomes available. In the meantime, she says volunteers have stepped up to help, but many of the services require specially-trained people.
A judge has issued a temporary restraining order delaying enforcement of a law requiring doctors to notify parents of teens seeking an abortion.
The order issued Wednesday was sought by the American Civil Liberties Union. It is to remain in effect until the judge can hear arguments on the group's opposition.
It came just hours after the state's Medical Disciplinary Board voted not to extend a 90-day grace period put into place in August.
The law requires doctors to notify the parents or guardians of girls 17 or younger 48 hours before a teens gets an abortion. There are provisions that allow girls to bypass parental notification.
Illinois' law was passed in 1995 but never enforced because of various court actions.
The recent announcement of a proposed merger between Carle Foundation Hospital and Carle Clinic has generated a lot of response.
But little of that was negative in a 2-hour state hearing in Urbana Wednesday morning. Support for the plan came from not only Carle administrators and physicians, but those who partner with the Clinic and hospital, like the United Way and Francis Nelson Health Center.
The $250 million merger would create a single not-for-profit organization with the intent of expanding charity care and more efficient operation. Claudia Lenhoff, the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, says the change in ownership could be one of the best things for the community. "Having Carle Clinic become a non-profit provider that abides by Carle Hospital's financial assistance policies as proposed in the application to the state will result in tremendous access for thousands of community members who are currently locked out of health care." said Lenhoff. Lenhoff's group is requesting some changes with the merger, including acceptance of all forms of health insurance, and for Carle to keep supporting its taxing districts that would lose revenue under the non-profit structure.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says she can't endorse the merger unless the new organization can shift those funds onto other taxing bodies. "They account for almost 10% of our total assessed valuation," said Prussing. "The loss of Carle's payment of its fair share of the cost of fire, police, and public works would be devastating, and would place an unfair burden on all other Urbana taxpayers." Prussing says an agreement is being discussed with Carle officials in which payments would be made to the city in lieu of property taxes for clinic properties, and to let the courts decide whether hospital-owned properties would be taxable. Illinois' Health Facilities and Services Review Board will rule on the merger in March.
An accreditation team is coming to Champaign Thursday to review policies and procedures at the city's police department. But the police department's critics are questioning the accreditation program --- and the timing of its visit.
Champaign Police Chief R-T Finney serves on the board of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which sponsors the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program or ILEAP. The year-old program is billed as a lower-cost alternative to a more rigorous national accreditation program, known as CALEA, for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies..
The Reverend Evelyn Underwood of the Champaign-Urbana Ministerial Alliance questioned the city's use of a less rigorous program from a group tied to Finney, just weeks after the death of 15 year old Kiwane Carrington during a police confrontation. She told the city council Tuesday night that ILEAP has accredited only one police department so far, in Kankakee.
"Apparently, police departments are not lining up to get in on this opportunity", said Underwood. "So perhaps Champaign is doing the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program a favor more than the other way around."
City Manager Steve Carter says the Champaign Police Department sees ILEAP accreditation as a stepping stone for eventual accreditation by CALEA. He says the timing of the accreditation team's visit is unfortunate, but that the visit was scheduled before Carrington's death.
The ILEAP accreditation team will take public comment by phone during its visit to Champaign --- Thursday, November 5th from 4 to 6 PM. The number to call is 217-403-7015. Comment can also be emailed to Accreditation team member Pat Solar of the Genoa Police Department, at email@example.com. ILEAP's accreditation standards are available online at www.ilchiefs.org. A city news release says comments must address the Champaign Police Department's ability to comply with ILEAP standards.
Army Major David Audo is being remembered as a well-liked person who never changed his outlook on life.
Hundreds lined the streets of St. Joseph to honor the memory of the 35-year old native of the village who died in Baghdad a week ago. His body arrived at Willard Airport Tuesday afternoon, then a procession of police and fire personnel accompanied Audo's body from the airport to a St. Joseph funeral home.
Amy McElroy was a classmate of Audo's from Kindergarten through his graduation from St. Joseph-Ogden High School in 1992. She says he made the world a better place. "Even when he got deployed this time, he was joking about his spa treatments in Iraq, about the exfoliation and the sauna," McElroy said. "He was that kind of guy, he was always in good spirits, always wanting to make everybody else feel better. We would say 'thank you for being over there,' and he would say 'this is what I want to do with my life.'"
In high school, Audo was an honors student, and was active in track as well as drama. St. Joseph-Odgen English teacher Larry Williams knew Audo both as a student and neighbor, and he says he was full of life, even as a young child.
Funeral services for Major David Audo will be at 1 Thursday at Living Word Fellowship Church in St. Joseph, with burial in Danville National Cemetery. Visitation is from 4-30 to 8 Wednesday at the Freese Funeral Home in St. Joseph.
The outgoing and incoming leaders at the University of Illinois are asking units to set aside six percent of their current budgets.
President Joseph White and his interim successor, Stanley Ikenberry, say the university is dealing with serious cash flow problems because the state isn't keeping up with billings. The state is giving the U of I 719 million dollars this fiscal year, but White and Ikenberry say the U of I has seen little of that so far.
So chief financial officer Walter Knorr says campuses will have to hold back about 45 million dollars in this year's proposed spending, or about 45 million dollars. Knorr says the university has gotten used to holdbacks and recissions, such as last year when ten percent was set aside.
"In 2009 all we ended up with was a 2 1/2% recission. It ended up only being a slow cash payment cycle from the state," Knorr said.
Knorr says the university believes it can hold off any employee furloughs through the end of the calendar year and will try to avoid them next year as well. But the presidents' letter to campus officials still asks that hiring be limited to critical needs.
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