Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign County Board will consider a county budget plan for 2010 that is 7 percent smaller than the one they passed for 2009.
The 31-point-5 million dollar budget proposal was submitted to the County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night. County Administrator Deb Busey says the 7 percent in cuts reflects sharp declines this year in sales and income tax revenue. When the declines became evident at the end of the 1st quarter, Champaign County government instituted temporary spending cuts. But the cuts in this budget plan would be permanent. Busey says she expects the decline in tax revenue to level off in 2010 --- but if she's wrong, more mid-year spending cuts would be needed.
"I don't have a crystal ball, but I am hopeful", says Busey. "But if I am wrong about the revenues stabilizing, then we would have to look at that (additional mid-year spending cuts) in February at the end of the first quarter, like we did this year."
Roughly half of the spending cuts in the new budget plan come from county personnel. 29 full-time and 2 part-time jobs are being eliminated, through a combination of attrition and layoffs.
The Champaign County Board takes its first look at the new budget plan October 20th, with a final vote set for November. The county's fiscal year begins December 1st.
A former defense secretary says President Obama is right to carefully think over a decision on military commitment in Afghanistan - but he shouldn't think about it for too long.
Former Senator William Cohen of Maine served as secretary of defense for much of the Clinton Administration. Cohen told Focus 580's David Inge Thursday that in the Presidential campaign Obama encouraged greater concentration of troops in Afghanistan over Iraq, citing it as the home of al-Qaeda. Cohen says any decision to pull back there could further destabilize the region, and he needs to convey that to the American people and the nation's allies.
"Polls will change depending on what they (the voters) see and how he articulates the rationale for why we are there," said Cohen. "Can he persuade the American people that it is in our interest to prevent al-Qaeda from coming back in or the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan? Because if they do that, it may mean the destabilization of Pakistyan, which has many nuclear weapons."
Cohen believes the US military is not equipped enough to fight a long-term counter-insurgency in Afghanistan because it's not winning hearts and minds there.
The Champaign County Board will hold hearings in February to consider a possible reduction in the number of its members.
The County Board has 27 members. But Policy Committee Chairman Tom Betz says it would run more efficiently with maybe only half or two-thirds that number. The Urbana Democrat says the two political parties have trouble finding a full slate of candidates who are fully engaged in county government. The result, he says, is certain amount of not-too-active back-benchers.
"They're very intelligent, very capable people", says Betz. "But they are not necessarily as engaged and as active as other members. I think we should make sure everyone on the county board is fully and completely engaged."
Betz says his mind has changed over the past year on county board size. He once held views more like those of Alan Kurtz. The Champaign Democrat says cutting the number of members could result in a loss of diversity --- even if, for instance, African-Americans and Hispanics keep the same percentage of seats.
"Percentage-wise, we may still be representing the same amount of people", says Kurtz. "But we're not representing the same opinions. We're losing three black, or three 'of-color' opinions, that my differ from the other two."
Only the county board can set the size of the county board, although they could ask voters to weigh in through an advisory referendum. Betz says the February hearings will give county board members the information they need to decide if they want to reduce their membership with the 2012 election.
Those hearings will be hosted by the County Board's Policy Committee --- but by the time they're held in February, that duty may have moved over to a new Committee of the Whole. The Policy Committee endorsed an overhaul of its committee structure Wednesday night that would have all county board members voting on all committee items at two monthly Committee-of-the-Whole sessions. Those sessions would replace meetings of the current six standing committees --- but the chairs of those committees would still set the agendas. The full Champaign County Board will vote on the proposal at its October 20th meeting.
Governor Pat Quinn says he's committed to keeping lawmakers in Springfield this month until a grant program for low-income college students is extended through next spring. Quinn and some of the students who rely on the Monetary Awards Program, or MAP Grants, urged the legislature restore that funding at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus Wednesday. But the Governor says he's hoping to avoid any special session days beyond the six on the legislature's fall schedule.
"We've got to go back and make sure this program is safe," says Quinn. "I had to do this with Human Services over the summer - we went 45 days of overtime but we got that improved. But we are in a tough economic time. So it calls for sacrifices by the General Assembly to do hard things." Proposals to fund the grants include a tax amnesty program and 1-dollar tax on cigarettes. But Quinn says he also wants to look at loopholes in the Illinois Tax Code, including a tax break the state provides to oil companies for offshore drilling. About 200 students and faculty were at the rally on the campus quad, where freshman Edward Washington said he stands to lose 25-hundred dollars before next semester.
"If we do not take action and reinstate the MAP grant, the General Assembly will send a message to prospective college students all across the state," says Washington. "That is - that college is for rich folk. Prospective students shouldn't even bother to apply because they just can't afford it. Does this sound right to you? I urge the members of the General Assembly not to make this a political issue." U of I Director of Financial Aid Dan Mann says if there's no new revenue for the program by November, his office will work with every student relying on the MAP Grant to see what options they might have for the spring semester - but Mann admits those choices will be limited. About 5700 students on the Urbana campus use the MAP Grants.
The city of Champaign is getting ready to launch a recycling program for apartment buildings. At a study session Tuesday night, the city council told city staff to go ahead and develop a city recycling collection program that would be ready for launch next fall.
Waste-haulers in Champaign already must provide recycling pickup for single family homes and apartment buildings with less than 5 units. But under the plan endorsed last night, larger apartment buildings would also have recycling pickup. The city, using Urbana as an example, would contract for the service, and finance it with a mandatory fee charged to the landlords.
City Council member Mike Ladue says he's glad council sentiment has shifted since the early 1990s, when the city council voted to withdraw from a countywide solid waste consortium, and leave recycling to the private sector.
"This has been a question of a rising tide of public will making itself felt at the ballot box in election choices, and constituting a council more amendable to this type of development", says Ladue.
The council vote at last night's study session was met with applause from members of Students for Environmental Concerns at the U of I. Member Justin Ellis says Champaign officials should study recycling programs in other cities --- not just Urbana --- before moving forward.
"Champaign's coming late to the scene here with recycling", says Ellis. "And there's a lot of communities that have already learned a lot of the lessons related to this. And I hope that they look to those communities too in other parts of the country, and adapt the best of all these programs for us here in Champaign."
The program still awaits a final council vote, and is not expected to be up and running until next fall.
A new approach to helping emotionally-disturbed young people is getting nine million dollars in federal money.
Champaign County's Mental Health Board is implementing a new effort called the Access Initiative with the help of the state Division of Mental Health. It's meant to bring families more into the process of assisting troubled youngsters, and it's especially aimed at African-American cultural sensitivities.
Peter Tracy is the director of the county mental health board. He says previous methods of treating those children have not succeeded over time.
"Office-based therapy has not often been really successful with that population," Tracy said. "The departure is that this is a kind of outreach program where services are brought to the client and family as opposed of having them go to the office."
Under the grant, those services would be funded on a per-child basis instead of as a lump sum. They hope to serve about 200 children and teens, with families helping determine what form that assistance takes.
Gov. Pat Quinn is keeping attention on a college financial aid program for low-income students.
Lawmakers cut funding in half for the Illinois Monetary Award Program, also known as MAP grants. About 145,000 low-income students get financial assistance through the program.
The Chicago Democrat wants to see the money restored and he will rally at colleges around the state later this week, including the University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University and Bradley University. The UI rally takes place Wednesday at noon at the Illini Union.
But Quinn's Democratic primary challenger, Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes, has said Quinn signed off on the cuts to the program. The cuts were part of lawmakers' efforts to deal with a gaping budget hole.
Quinn has had other MAP grant rallies at Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Urbana's economic development manager says two hotel operating groups are interested in the Historic Lincoln Hotel.
Tom Carrino didn't name the two companies during Monday night's Urbana City Council meeting. But he says both are interested in possibly bringing a major hotel brand to the facility --- while preserving the building's architectural integrity.
The Historic Lincoln was designed by local architect Joseph W. Royer. It opened in 1924 and closed last March --- about the same time it was acquired by Marine Bank of Springfield in a foreclosure. Its previous owners had struggled to compete with newer hotels located closer to interstate highways. Carrino says the Historic Lincoln's location in downtown Urbana may be a plus to the two hotel groups now considering the property.
"That means that it's relatively close to the University of Illinois", says Carrino. "It's close to some major employers in downtown Urbana. The fact that it was involved in a foreclosure, the bank is motivated to sell the property. That means that a good hotel group could get the property at a relatively reasonable price.
Carrino says he expects both companies will prepare competing offers to Marine Bank for the Historic Lincoln in the coming weeks. He says both companies have discussed possible tax incentives with city officials --- those incentives would be possible due to the hotel's location in a Tax Increment Finance District and a city Enterprise Zone.
Former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar says calls the state's financial crisis the worst he's ever seen since first being involved in state government.
The Republican says he was optimistic after the ouster of former Governor Rod Blagojevich in February. But Edgar says he's now pessimistic since no one stepped forward to address Illinois' finances, calling last spring's legislative session one of his greatest disappointments.
Edgar says an income tax hike is unavoidable. But he says the proper cuts need to take place first, including those in so-called 'sacred cows' like elementary and secondary education:
"I believe if tell people and you're fair about it and you don't just pick on one segment, one part of the state to make those cuts, I think the public will understand," said Edgar. "It's going to take people with leadership willing to step forward and do what has to be done."
Ethics is also on the table for legislators when they meet in just over a week, but Edgar says Illinois really has a bipartisan leadership problem that exists in both the House and Senate.
Edgar spoke at the Illinois News Broadcasters Association conference over the weekend, where he received the Illinoisan of the Year award.
Parkland College in Champaign will be the site Thursday evening, October 1st, for the first of three Illinois Commerce Commission hearings on a rate hike request from Illinois American Water. The hearing starts at 7 PM in the 2nd floor Conference Center in Parkland's Building D.
Illinois American is seeking a 30 percent rate increase for water customers in an area that includes Champaign-Urbana, Pontiac, Streator, Alton and Peoria.
The company says the increase will help pay for their new water treatment plant west of Champaign, along with other improvements. Illinois-American won a 47 percent rate increase last year, and the company said that was also needed to pay for the new plant.
Comments from the public at the s hearing will be submitted to the I-C-C for consideration as they study the rate hike request. Public hearings are also scheduled for October 8th in Mount Prospect and October 19th in Homer Glen.
Written comments on the Illinois American rate increase request can be submitted through the "File a Comment" option on the ICC website at http://www.icc.illinois.gov/docket/comment/ , or by calling 1-800-524-0795.
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