Illinois Public Media News
Champaign County Board members voted 15 to 11 in committee Tuesday night to put a referendum making the county auditor an appointed post on the April 2011 ballot. Board members voted the same way they had 13 months ago, when they slated the measure for the November ballot. That vote turned out to be legally premature --- state law says a referendum must be approved to go on the ballot within a year of the election date.
Despite the delay, supporters like Republican Greg Knott of District Four say it's clear that an elected county auditor is not needed.
"Very seldom does the current auditor ever come and really recommend changes or point out things other than the very obvious that the county or departments within the county could use the advice on," says Knott, referring to Champaign County Auditor Tony Fabri. "His staff does all the work. So at this point, it's a surplus position, in my opinion."
Fabri, a Democrat, disagrees. He says the auditor's office needs to be led by someone elected by the people, who can act as an independent monitor of county finances. He says referendum supporters are trying to weaken the office because of their opposition to him. But Knott says problems with the office go back several decades in Champaign County.
Fabri also questions referendum supporters for wanting to place the question on the April ballot, after losing their chance on the November ballot. The November election is a general election, expected to attract more voters than the local elections in April. Fabri says the referendum supporters hope to benefit from the lower spring election turnout.
"I think they're trying to game the system. And they think that in the municipal election, when Urbana, for example, has no municipal election at all, and probably won't have many contested school board elections, I think they believe they'll get a better voter turnout for their side of the argument."
But the Democratic co-sponsor of the referendum, Steve Beckett, says the political maneuvering was actually done earlier --- when Champaign County Democratic Chairman Al Klein spotted the state election rule that disqualified an earlier county board vote to bring the referendum to voters in November. Beckett says Klein waited until it was too late to fix anything before bringing up the matter.
"If he had alerted the board prior to the time that he did, we could have corrected the technical problems with the prior draft, and had it on the ballot for this November,", says Beckett.
The District Nine county board member says he also has concerns about holding the auditor referendum in April, but doesn't want to delay it until 2012, when candidates for auditor will be on the ballot, too.
The Champaign County Board will take a final vote on whether to put the auditor referendum on the April 2011 ballot, at their general meeting September 23rd.
A series of attacks in Champaign has left the city's police department looking at ways to beef up crime prevention.
The Champaign Police Department reports that overall violence has dropped by less than a percent, but aggravated batteries are up by 10.1 percent, robberies 73.9 percent, and armed robberies have risen by 27.3 percent.
Many of these attacks in recent weeks have taken place on or near 4th and Green Street in Campustown. Chief of Police R.T. Finney would not say with certainty whether each attack is connected.
"You know many times a person is hit from behind, so identification is very difficult," explained Finney.
Finney said that arrests have been made, noting that the city is taking the attacks "very seriously" with increased officers on duty who are working overtime.
Champaign police officials are exploring ways to cut down on crime rates. Champaign Police Lieutenant Joe Gallo said in the next few weeks, his department will introduce a couple of new data mapping and analysis programs designed to help beef up security. Gallo explained that one program disseminates information for police officers to help them narrow down their search for a suspect.
"It alerts us that we've had three calls to service at this location in a given time period," said Gallo. "The intelligence portion is going to come up when we start looking at that address and go, 'Ok, this person was recently paroled at this address, and he has a history of violence. Maybe we better look at what he's doing over there.'"
The other program lets the public identify recent criminal activity in their neighborhood on an interactive map, similar to Google Maps. This program lets people sign up for alerts whenever there's a crime near their home.
"I think it's going to be a really valuable tool for our community," he said.
People are encouraged to report crime-related cases to the Champaign Police Department by calling 217-351-4545. Callers can remain anonymous by contacting Crime Stoppers at 217-373-TIPS.
The first recommendations for budget cuts and savings are coming out for the University of Illinois' largest campus.
Interim Chancellor and Provost Robert Easter said the Stewarding Excellence@Illinois program yielded ideas from 17 areas of campus. On Tuesday, Easter revealed the next steps in three of those areas, including information technology services. He said efforts like streamlining communication services and consolidating server rooms will cost money in the short term but bring several million dollars in long-term savings.
"If you have a server room in a college or even in a department, someone has to tend to it and there have to be environmental controls like heating and air conditioning systems at work," Easter said. "And getting all that consolidated where it's appropriate...should result in some significant savings over time."
Two other reports involve re-integrating graduate college admissions into the registrar's office and having the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics absorb more of the cost of athletic scholarships. Currently the DIA relies on tuition waivers for full and partial scholarships - but starting next year, the University will provide 100-thousand dollars less in waivers each year over five years.
Easter said the U of I already contributes less than most schools to athletics, which are funded mainly through sports revenues and donations, and he said the DIA already shoulders most of the academic cost.
"They are already putting about $6 million in tuition money into the campus, so it's not as though this is something new," Easter said. "They've been making very substantial contributions through their donors and their ticket sales and other things to the cost of educating student athletes."
Easter says individual colleges are also being charged with reviewing and reducing their costs.
Retiring Urbana Police Chief Mike Bily said his biggest achievements in 26 years with the department did not make headlines.
Bily is retiring September 22nd. The Urbana City Council confirmed Assistant Chief Patrick Connolly to succeed him Monday night. Bily said overseeing a successful department often had to do with simply helping the community.
"The investigators to an outstanding job," said Bily. "The officers who work patrol 24/7, 365 days a year do good things every single day that receive very little notoriety. Those are the types of things I've proudest of, not any single personal accomplishment."
Connolly said his top goal is now filling vacancies, including the now-vacant assistant chief's position and open lieutenant positions.
"But I also recognize the needs of the city," said Connolly. "So there has to be a balance, and the mayor has been incredible with working with us so far, and I'm going to continue with that relationship, but I'm certainly not going to demand anything up front. We're going to work with the city as closely as we always have."
Connolly said becoming a chief has been a career ambition in his 33 years in law enforcement. He has been with Urbana Police since 1988.
A University of Illinois administrator said he hopes state leaders can give the University of Illinois some advance notice on how much money it will be able to use in its operating budget.
Members of a U of I Board of Trustees committee learned Monday that the state will likely owe the university more than $500-million by the end of the calendar year, combining the prior fiscal year with the current one. Senior Vice President for Business and Finance Doug Beckman said fiscal 2012 looks worse, partly because the state will not be able to rely on any federal stimulus funds. Beckman said it would help if the U of I knew sooner how much it could expect.
"We'd love to have more lead time, but we understand it's a very, very difficult political issue," said Beckman. "There's got to be a combination of cuts and revenue, it would appear, to balance this budget. That is a difficult process. There's hard decisions to be made. I think we would trade a 10-percent cut for certainty right now, at least I would."
Beckman stated that the U of I has to operate under the assumption that some state funds will be cut, and he said the university will adjust to a pension reform plan signed by Governor Pat Quinn in April. Beckman said it is a step in the right direction in that it reduces the state's costs. The plan reduces benefits for those hired after January 1st of next year, raises the retirement age to 67, and caps maximum benefits at just under $107-thousand.
A Champaign County Board member said he expects the first meeting soon of a board subcommittee assigned with looking at the Olympian Drive extension project.
The panel was put together by Chair Pius Weibel after county board members failed to reach consensus on a project, or different options of that plan. Republican Alan Nudo said he and many of his colleagues were embarrassed by how the board looked after the lengthy discussion at last Tuesday's committee of the whole meeting. The new panel is expected to meet with Urbana and Champaign officials in the next few days.
Meanwhile, Urbana Chief of Staff Mike Monson said the immediate goal will be to extend Olympian Drive to Lincoln Avenue, and then carrying it out to US 45. Nudo said the new subcommittee has the ability to get the Olympian project approved to Lincoln, which he said he has backed all along. However, Nudo added that further road development should head west instead of east.
"All Republicans were taking a look at it very hard to see if it was really necessary financially, if we could afford it, and what (how much money) the feds were going to put in there," said Nudo. "We stayed together on that, but personally I've always felt that Lincoln is the prudent way to go, and quite frankly, I think the next step is to look at Duncan (Duncan Avenue in West Champaign). Nudo Duncan is really the more opportune area to connect before 45, but that's, again, a whole other issue."
Monson said most funding for extending Lincoln to Olympian is in place, and would cost roughly $20-million, but Nudo said he expects the project to run at least $10-million, when considering amenities like larger medians and bike paths. The project would rely on a mix of state, federal, and local matching funds. Monson said large trucks cannot drive on the northernmost part of Lincoln, which he described a narrow, winding road meant only for cars. He said that will require the Champaign County Board to sign off on this first phase of the plan for Olympian, and to determine what amenities the public wants.
"If you do a side path, that's going to cost extra," said Monson. "Wetlands, landscaping, those things can all add to the cost - or not. Actually the roundabout that we're talking about would save a half-million dollars. Those decisions haven't been made, so an exact cost isn't known."
The subcommittee also includes Republican Greg Knott, and Democrat Ralph Langenheim. A fifth member will be chosen soon. That panel is expected to have a concrete recommendation for the county board to vote on by November.
The Curtis Road - I-57 Interchange opened more than two years ago, and now motorists can use it to travel to and from Champaign-Urbana.
Louis Braghini has been the project engineer for the city of Champaign, which acted as the lead agent this phase of the Curtis Road improvements. He said a former two-lane oil-and-chip pavement is now a four-lane highway, with concrete cross-sections, street lights, traffic signals at the Prospect and Mattis Avenue intersections, plus landscaping.
Savoy Village Administrator Dick Helten said the route will bring new traffic to businesses in his town, both the existing ones along Route 45, and the ones he expects to locate along the new improved Curtis Road.
"I think the numbers will jump up dramatically over the next few weeks," said Helten. "And those businesses, future businesses, are going to see an incredible opportunity for their businesses to thrive."
Development right around the Curtis Road interchange will be in the city of Champaign. The first development is to be anchored by a new Christie Clinic. Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight said the Research Park and sporting events at the University of Illinois campus will also benefit.
The next phase of Curtis Road improvements is set to continue east, past Route 45, including a viaduct at the Canadian National tracks. The village of Savoy will take the lead for that project, but Helten said that project does not yet have funding or a scheduled start date.
Urbana Police Chief Mike Bily will retire later this month, after more than 25 years with the department.
Bily plans to step down September 22nd. Mayor Laurel Prussing will recommend Assistant Chief Patrick Connolly as his Bily's replacement at a special city council meeting on Monday. Bily was named chief in 2006, succeeding Eddie Adair. He was named assistant chief in 2004, and has been with the department since 1984.
Mayor Prussing was not available for comment this week. Her chief of staff, Mike Monson said the city's crime rate has dropped 33 percent under Bily. Monson said Urbana's Citizen Police Review Board was started under Chief Bily to hear concerns about police action.
"Those were kind of controversial when it was implemented, but it's working very well - the department's accepted it," said Monson. "Mike's a top-notch administrator as well, and was a team player when we had to leave some positions vacant this past fiscal year to keep our budget in good standing."
Monson said Bily has been also good working with the public, representing the department well in neighborhood association meetings.
Monday night's special meeting is at 7pm in the Urbana council chambers.
With contract negotiations and a possible strike on the horizon, Danville school officials are trying to restore teaching positions that were cut in a series of layoffs last spring.
The state currently owes Danville's schools about $3 million in unpaid bills. Legislation President Obama signed in August doles out about $2.5 million to support education. The money could allow District 118 to hire more teachers and issue pay raises, which is one of the demands by union officials.
Superintendent Mark Denman cautioned that while the money may provide some temporary relief to Danville's schools, he said it is not a permanent fix to Illinois' fiscal problems.
"If we hired a number of people back, and then next March the federal month is not coming any further in the next year and state funding isn't better," he said. "Then those jobs will have to be eliminated in all probability at that time."
Denman said the school district needs to submit proposals to the federal government outlining how it would spend the money. He said he hopes to go over possible spending options in a couple of weeks with the school board during its regular meeting.
In the meantime, the school board is scheduled to continue negotiations on Sunday with union members in an attempt to avert a possible strike.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said many of the nearly $600 million in carbon capture and storage projects announced Tuesday will help make FutureGen a less costly and more efficient operation.
The $575 million in stimulus dollars targets 15 states - including Illinois. About $312 million will go to large-scale testing of coal gasification technologies, and $90 million will examine the way carbon capture will operate in power plants, like the one in Western Illinois that is set to be part of the reconfigured plans for FutureGen.
Chu said the projects announced Tuesday will create jobs, and encompass many of the practices involved in FutureGen. "While the FutureGen project will test the system, we're also investing in the components of the system so that we drive down costs,' said Chu. "Our goal is to start to deploy scale commercially within 10 years."
One of the projects announced Tuesday involves $5 million that will allow the University of Illinois to further evaluate the state's geology. Rob Finley with Illinois' State Geological Survey said the funds will help with continuing research of the Knox dolomite and sandstone formations in the western portion of the Illinois Basin, and could help determine what site will best accommodate FutureGen's carbon emissions facility.
"Basically what we're looking for is to make sure that the site is picked, and can effectively keep the CO2 isolated from the atmosphere," said Finley, director of the Survey's Advanced Energy Technology Initiative. "So that site has to be safe, you have to make sure the CO2 is not going to leak out, that it's not going to affect groundwater in people's properties. So, anytime we have more geologic information about the regional geology, it helps us pick a better and safer site."
Finley said the $5 million project covers a lot of East Central Illinois, and he added that the DOE's specification on locating a storage site 100 miles from Meredosia is likely based on the cost of the pipeline, which can run about $1 million a mile.
Champaign County Board Chair and geologist Pius Weibel said bringing FutureGen to the county is geologically feasible, but he wants to know more about Department of Energy guidelines, which he said are constantly changing. Meanwhile, Assistant Energy Secretary Jim Markowski said that he expects an announcement on a city to host that site by next spring or summer.
Chu would not endorse or dismiss any of the 26 communities that have expressed an interest, saying they are under evaluation.
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