Illinois Public Media News
Champaign department heads and employee unions are being asked to develop contingency plans should rising costs and the poor economy force further cuts in services.
City finance director Richard Schnuer said the first $1 to $2 million in suggested cuts should be prepared by November, but he said departments could be asked to seek out an additional $4 million in cost reductions early next year. If the city has to act, Schnuer would not speculate on what areas could be cut, but he said that it is unlikely any department would go untouched. Schnuer added that employee compensation has become one of the key areas that could force these decisions.
"We had hoped that we would be able to have an agreement with the bargaining units to have a short-term contract that would have no increases to help us get us through this year, and hopefully, with the economy beginning to grow we'd have some more money for increases at at later time," said Schnuer. "But we have been bargaining for several months now, and unfortunately, that has been unsuccessful. We see that we will be paying some kind of increases."
Schnuer also noted that under Illinois law, police and fire unions can bring an arbitrator if they do not reach an agreement in negotiations. He said a number of parties at the state level want to reduce the share of income tax that goes to local governments.
"That would cut us close to $2 million based on proposals that have been made," said Schnuer. "We would like to think the state would balance its budget without reducing revenues to our city, but certainly, that may not be the case."
Schnuer also said the city is not counting on revenue growth in the current year. Schuner said there have already been more than $8 million in cuts in the last three years, primarily coming from city administration and public works. Proposals will be posted for city council consideration by November, but Schnuer said information will be available for the public review through the city's website as the process moves forward.
A gas leak in Champaign prompted the re-routing of cars and pedestrian traffic for about 90 minutes Friday.
Lieutenant John Millls with the Champaign Fire Department says an excavator hit a plastic line under the railroad tracks east of the Illinois Terminal building. The gas could be smelled for blocks when the line was hit just past 11:30, and a couple of businesses had to be evacuated. Mills says a crew was able to shut off a valve at Water and Chester streets just past 1. Firefighters left the scene at 1:15, and turned the scene over to Ameren for further repairs.
Federal prosecutors say they will not retry the brother of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges.
Nashville, Tenn. businessman Robert Blagojevich had been accused of scheming with his brother to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat and squeeze people for campaign donations.
A jury last week deadlocked on the four counts against Robert Blagojevich and 23 of 24 counts against the former governor.
Prosecutors said Thursday they made the decision based on the brother's less central role in the alleged schemes. But they have said they will retry Rod Blagojevich.
The hearing Thursday will also determine when a trial could be held.
Another series of roundtable discussions on a proposed extension of Olympian Drive in Champaign County spent a lot of time on the design phase.
Engineers in Wednesday's public hearing in Urbana briefly ran through cost options of what's been identified as the first two phases through prior roundtables. Those are extending Olympian at Apollo Drive to Lincoln Avenue, and extending North Lincoln at Saline Court to Olympian. The full project calls for extending Olympian to US 45. The 60 people attending Wednesday night split up into roundtables on items like bike paths, wide medians, and installing roundabouts. But at least one elected official contends engineers have bigger issues to contend with first.
Champaign County Board Democrat Brendan McGinty calls the meeting a good effort, but says this issue is much more complicated. "There are going to be sticky issues regarding the sweeping 'S' up to connect Lincoln to Olympian," said McGinty. "Focusing on that to get the public behind that and the landowners behind that I think would be important. But, you know these are issues that would need to be addressed at some point. It feels like this is step 52 that we are taking now when we really need to be addressing step 1, 2, and 3."
McGinty says last night's forum also should have included talk on property acquisition, since it's been discussed among Urbana city leaders. County Board Republican Alan Nudo says he was impressed with the list of cost options, but says engineers need to do a feasibility study on the traffic in that area before deciding on a two or four lane road. Urbana City Council member Brandon Bowersox says he's glad stakeholders got to have a say. "There were no easy clear-cut answers, there were really a split of feelings, but at least it was good for me to see that everyone had a chance to come weigh in on that," said Bowersox. "That information will all be public, and all be available to people as we go ahead."
A longtime supporter of roundabouts, Urbana Mayor Prussing says she was happy to see support for traffic calming devices that cut down on accidents and save the cost installing traffic signals. Engineer Matt Heyen says Illinois' Department of Transportation has confirmed that part of $5-million in Illinois 'Jobs Now' funds can be used to extend Olympian Drive to Lincoln Avenue. The next public meeting on the project is expected this fall.
The Iowa farms whose eggs have been recalled in a Salmonella outbreak aren't saying yet what will become of their hens, but it's possible they'll wind up becoming meat for soup or other products.
Food safety experts like Bruce Chassy of the University of Illinois say there's no reason for the eggs or the meat not to be eaten as long as they're thoroughly cooked to kill any Salmonella bacteria.
The farms say they're already sending the eggs to be pasteurized and sold as a liquid product. Pasteurization should kill most if not all of the Salmonella.
Wright County Egg Farms and Hillandale Farms are the two Iowa egg producers that have recalled more than a half-billion eggs.
Both companies say they're waiting to hear from the Food and Drug Administration before deciding what, if anything, to do with their hens.
The administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department said she hopes finances will allow her staff to return to a 5-day a week schedule in just over month.
Shirley Hicks said the Friday furlough days that started in June haven't reduced the volume of work. A lack of state funds forced the department to become a minimum certified facility that month, offering a handful of services, including immunizations, emergency planning, and the Women, Infants, and Children or WIC program. But Hicks said the department still has the same clients in those areas, noting the work has not been furloughed.
"High-risk restaurants - they need inspection three times a year," said Hicks. "Can you do all of those kinds of things? And what are doing on complaint calls? How effectively can you go out and respond to issues of communicable disease if you're not available three of seven days?"
At issue is continued budget problems caused by cash flow from the state. Hicks said in addition to that backlog of about $400,000, her department still owes Vermilion County for roughly half of a $300,000 loan made last year. County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said the county will help the department if it keeps the 4-day schedule, but not with a 5-day a week plan. McMahon said the funds that have come back from the state have led Hicks to believe that the health department can resume a normal work week in about six weeks.
"I don't share the same confidence, but at the same time, you have to let managers be managers," said McMahon. "So if you make that decision and go back to five days, basically what you're saying is you no longer would need the county board's help. So if you're saying that, you're back to five days - everybody's happy."
McMahon said if county decided to stick with the 4-day a week schedule, the county will provide 'whatever means necessary' to maintain a minimum certified health department to maintain services like immunizations and restaurant inspections.
The Republican candidates for Illinois Treasurer and Comptroller say they're confident that consolidating the two offices will not only save the state money, but be done in a system with checks and balances.
Former Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka and Pontiac Senator Dan Rutherford say merging the positions will save the state 12-million dollars by trimming jobs, office space, and saving communication time when investing money. Campaigning in Urbana Tuesday, Topinka says it used to be that way, when Illinois simply had a state auditor. A person in the office in the 1950's... Orville Hodge... was convicted and sentenced to prison for embezzlement. Topinka says the two offices were created for oversight, but adds that's what the office of auditor general is for now. "He (William Holland) serves in that function of oversight. Second of all, becase of the high-tech computerization, we have the same numbers."
If they're elected, Topinka and Rutherford say they'll actively campaign for the change before lawmakers next year. If lawmakers approve the change, it would require voter approval in November 2012. If the question passes, the single financial officer would be on the ballot two years later. And during their time in office, "Communication will be key," said Rutherford. "Because of our relationship, we will talk about when she's gonna disperse and when I can make funds available. But the thing is, someday Judy and Dan aren't gonna be there, there will be a different personality, and we want to have this thing fixed for the future."
Illinois' Democratic candidates for Treasurer and Comptroller, Robin Kelly and David Miller, have also gone on record supporting the idea. Kelly contends she first proposed merging the offices, but the GOP candidates say press reports indicate she was only exploring such a plan until recently.
Gov. Pat Quinn has picked his Department of Human Services head to be his new chief of staff.
Quinn named Michelle Saddler on Tuesday to replace Jerry Stermer, who resigned this weekend amid an ethics probe. Saddler has led the social service agency since October 2009.
Stermer resigned Sunday after a probe of his admission that he had "inadvertently'' used his state e-mail account to send three messages, including campaign-related ones. He said executive inspector general James Wright later determined they were prohibited under state ethics rules.
Stermer said he quit to avoid being a distraction for Quinn, who is in a tough campaign against Republican state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington.
Illinois has struck out in its attempt to get federal school-reform money.
The state was a finalist twice for "Race to the Top'' grants and hoped to get $400 million this time. But the U.S. Education Department named nine states and the District of Columbia as recipients in the final round of stimulus program funding.
Illinois House education leader Roger Eddy says the state's bid was hurt by its long history of local school control and concerns about its ability to continue the programs after federal money dried up. But the Hutsonville Republican says the State Board of Education worked hard to revise its application after Illinois missed out on the first round of federal money in March.
The top education leader in Illinois is diappointed the state got shut out on those funds. But state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch says the reform agenda will proceed. Reforms paid for with the federal money must be continued with state funds. Koch says he doesn't know if Illinois' budget problems played a role in the state's loss. He says there is already some federal money for changes and Illinois can gain from successes in the states that did get money.
A referendum to make the Champaign County auditor an appointed, rather than elected, position will not be on the November ballot this year.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says it was his duty as the county Election Authority to remove the referendum from the ballot, because the Champaign County Board voted to put it on the ballot more than a year in advance of the election.
"I've never had to do it before --- hope it never happens again", says Shelden. "But this ballot question won't be on the November ballot, because it was passed by the County Board, more than a year prior to the election. And the state statute is very clear that they cannot do that."
Shelden acted, following a complaint filed last week by County Democratic Chair Al Klein, who also said the question was flawed because it didn't list a date for the auditor to switch from elected to appointed, if voters approved the measure. Shelden said it might have been possible to work around that problem, but not the county board's failure to wait for the one-year pre-election window.
The referendum's co-sponsor on the County Board, Democrat Steve Beckett, says he plans to bring it up again for inclusion on the April 2011 ballot. Beckett says he accepts responsibility for the error. Meanwhile, Republican County Board member Greg Knott accuses Klein and Democratic County Auditor Tony Fabri of sitting on knowledge of the problem until it was too late for the County Board to fix it.
"It's clear they were playing games", says Knott. "It was a way to not have the focus on Mr. Fabri and his performance and the need for that office in this election cycle."
The auditor's referendum had targeted Fabri, with Republicans and some Democrats on the County Board accusing him of poor attendance at his office, following a News-Gazette report. Fabri says an elected auditor is vital for good county government, and says his critics should run their own candidate for auditor, if they're unhappy with him. Fabri says he had heard rumors that there were statutory problems with the way the referendum was put on the ballot, but wasn't focused on the matter, and thought the County Board would take care of any problems.
Klein says he learned of the statutory problems with the referendum a few weeks before he wrote to the County Clerk about it, but waited in order to check the matter out with legal experts. He also says waiting until after the deadline for submitting items for the ballot is the usual time to post a challenge.
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