Illinois Public Media News
The group that represents Illinois consumers in utility rate cases says Ameren's proposed rate hike shouldn't go forth - in fact, it claims the utility should be cutting its customers' rates.
The Citizens Utility Board has been collecting petition signatures against a proposed $130 million rate hike - it would affect what Ameren charges to deliver power and natural gas, which makes up about a third of the typical homeowner's utility bill.
CUB director David Kolata contends that Ameren's request is way too high considering the utility's healthy profits and the sluggish economy. He also takes issue with Ameren's plans to ask for yearly increases.
"We would expect them to file right after this case," Kolata said. "That's why we think it's so important for the ICC to put its foot down here. If there's ever been a time to eliminate one (rate hike), now is the time, and hopefully if it occurs, Ameren will learn its lesson that they can't just keep going to the ICC and raising profits at consumers' expense."
Last month a judge recommended that the state lower the rate hike that Ameren proposed to $56 million. The Illinois Commerce Commission will consider that and CUB's opposition when it votes on the rate hike request - that vote is expected next month.
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says even the lowered rate increase wouldn't be enough for the utility to operate. He says Ameren has already lowered its proposal by cutting jobs and delaying construction, and the profitability of the overall Ameren holding company does not accurately reflect the performance of its Illinois utilities.
Sen. Kirk Dillard called it a "hard-fought race'' today as he conceded defeat in the Republican primary for Illinois governor. Dillard's concession makes Bloomington Sen. Bill Brady the party's official nominee.
Dillard says he'll do whatever he can to help Brady defeat Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in November. The Senator says he feels Brady can win the governor's race, but he needs to become better-known in the Chicago area. Official results released Friday by the State Board of Elections show Brady winning the primary by 193 votes. Dillard also says he's decided not to ask for a recount. Unofficial election night results compiled by The Associated Press showed Brady with a lead of 420 votes. Absentee and provisional ballots counted since then narrowed the gap.
Official results from the State Board of Elections show Sen. Bill Brady won the Republican nomination for Illinois governor by 193 votes.
Fellow Sen. Kirk Dillard now must decide whether to concede the race or ask for a recount after the board voted Friday morning to declare the results from the Feb. 2 primary official.
Dillard has said he might seek a recount if he lost by fewer than 100 votes. He's expected to announce his decision at an afternoon news conference.
Dillard did not immediately concede the race on Election Night after it ended in a virtual tie.
Unofficial election night results compiled by The Associated Press showed Brady with a lead of 420 votes. Absentee and provisional ballots counted since then narrowed the gap.
A plan to move air traffic control radar services from Willard Airport to the Chicago area in five years isn't sitting well with the airport's manager.
Steve Wanzek says he's finding little justification for an FAA proposal to move those employees from Champaign to Elgin. The radar control workers monitor air traffic just outside of the visual range of the tower. Willard is getting an updated control tower... and Wanzek says plans are to leave those facilities out, since the radar employees can perform the same function elsewhere. Willard's radar facilities also serve air traffic in Danville and Decatur. But Wanzek says communicating with radar control in the suburbs means losing local knowledge of the region in the event of an emergency. "We get a pilot that's lost or whatever who might able to identify some kind of landmark," says Wanzek. "Whether it be an interection, or a sign, or something that the local controller might know something about because he lives here, and drives around here, and maybe he's driven by that sign or knows that intersection better than he would know if he was up in Elgin."
Wanzek also says losing those employees will hurt the University of Illinois' Institute of Aviation, in which more than 250 students monitor the activites of both radar controllers and air traffic personnel on the ground. The FAA's change could impact 12 to 14 jobs. Agency spokesman Tony Molinaro says the agency continues to analyze the potential cost savings of those salaries, along with building Willard's new tower without a radar room. He also contends that only a handful of Willard employees handle multiple tasks. "The tower controllers would be sending the planes out from the runways and the radar folks are splitting them up or vice versa," says Molinaro. "People are coming from different directions, the radar folks are putting them in line, and then handing them over to the tower folks. Most of those people would stay where they are, cause we still need all those folks to be in the tower itself."
Willard Airport Air Traffic Controller Carl Jensen says he may consider relocating, but wants an explanation from the FAA regarding potential cost savings. He says it makes no sense to give some Willard employees a cost of living increase to do the same job from the Chicago area. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association is also opposed to the plan.
A bill giving Illinois school districts the option of cutting their week a day short to save money could clear a House committee next week.
But Republican Sponsor Bill Black of Danville admits its chances for passing the full House are slim. The legislation was proposed last month at the request of a rural school administrator in Black's district. Jamaica School Superintendent Mark Janesky estimates the district would save $100,000 dollars a year by parking buses and leaving lights off for a day, and holding longer school hours on four days. Black says there's a big difference between the state dollars coming into a district like Jamaica and one in an urban area. "Some of these small rural school districts may be faced with the ultimate decision," says Black. "And that's to close, and tuition out their students to a surronding district, to consolidate, which is always an emotional issue, or to form cooperative high schools, which is a law I passed 3 or 4 years ago."
Black says a couple other rural school districts have contacted him with interest in making the change. If the bill passes, Janesky admits a number of issues would come up in a local public hearing, like child care for some parents. "Some of them who have younger kids at home - they rely on older kids to watch them, or they don't have any older children at home to watch them," says Janesky. "They may not like it at all. It may mean that they have to find another way to child care for an extra day. There's going to negatives and positives to how the community is going to react to it."
Black says some fellow lawmakers fear the bill would set a bad precedent, but he notes many school districts, including Danville, used to hold half-day school days because of financial problems. The State Board of Education is drafting an amendment to the bill to be sure it complies with school code. Representative Shane Cultra of Onarga is a co-sponsor of the measure.
If their budgets are cut by ten percent ... leaders of two state universities in Illinois say they'll have to lay off staff and raise tuition even higher.
Legislators are beginning to craft next year's Illinois budget ... and reductions in higher education spending is a strong possibility. One Senate plan would cut state appropriations to the state's public universities by ten percent.
University of Illinois interim President Stan Ikenberry told state senators Wednesday that amounts to a 74 million dollar blow.
"It would require draconian cuts in our staff", says Ikenberry. "Let me put it this way, this year, already, we have made roughly eight and a half percent of budget cuts plus we've instituted furloughs and layoffs."
Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard says a reduction in state support to higher education will inhibit the state's long-term economic growth.
"Continuing on the same old path of budget cuts and tuition increases will without questions further reduce accessibility and affordability to low and moderate income families", says Poshard.
Poshard says SIU has had a hard time this year because the state is so behind on making its payments to the school.
He says a borrowing plan approved Wednesday by the Illinois Senate would help SIU.
It would allow Illinois' nine public universities to take out short-term loans that would have to be paid back within a year.
Poshard says SIU has received only 23 percent of the money it's owed from the state. Ikenberry says the U of I has received 18 percent of its appropriation.
The head of a local agency overseeing a federally funded project to curb underage drinking among Champaign-Urbana college students is asking the Champaign City Council to reconsider its decision to refuse its share of the funding.
The City Council rejected the money on a five to four vote two weeks ago. CEO Sheila Ferguson of the Mental Health Center of Champaign County wasn't at that meeting. And on Tuesday night, she apologized to council members for not doing the best job of explaining the program, which also involves U of I, Urbana and Illinois state police forces, along with Parkland College.
The program would have given Champaign Police about $11,000 a year for three years to enforce underage drinking laws. In voting "no" two weeks ago, council members said they would be conducting those enforcement measures anyway. And Councilman Tom Bruno criticized the program for not including education along with enforcement efforts. But Ferguson says education is indeed included, in programs run by the Mental Health Center.
"There's things like advertising, pamphlets, brochures, opportunities for public speaking at fraternities, on campus, during Quad Day, things like that, where we'd be focusing on providing education and advocacy efforts tot those groups specifically", says Ferguson.
Ferguson says Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart wrote a letter of support for the program in 2008. But in voting to reject the funding two weeks ago, he expressed concerns about federal money being spent at a time of high deficits. The total size of the multi-agency grant is around $120,000 a year for three years. At Tuesday night's council meeting, Schweighart told Ferguson to call his office to discuss ways to bring the grant money back before the Champaign City Council for discussion.
The Illinois Department of Insurance is the only agency that stands in front of the merger of Carle Foundation Hospital and Cale Clinic Association.
The deal would have the not-for-profit Carle Foundation purchase the for-profit clinic for $250 million. The clinic's Health Alliance Medical Plans would be the only business to remain for-profit.
Yesterday without opposition, the state Health Facilities and Services Review Board approved a certificate of need clearing the way for the purchase. Carle says the merger will make the organization a stronger health care provider and give the clinic's doctors a stable place of employment. Federal regulators have not raised any questions about the deal - if the state insurance department approves, Carle says the merger could be completed in April.
The city of Champaign is looking for someone to serve as interim city councilman for District Five, the city council seat left vacant by Dave Johnson's resignation. Council members approved a process for appointing Johnson's replace at Tuesday night's meeting.
One interested applicant was present at the meeting. Gordy Hulten is Director of Sales and Marketing for the Devonshire Group, and a Republican precinct committeeman. But many followers of Champaign County politics know Hulten best as the man behind the local political blog, Illinipundit.
"I have, because of illinipundit.com, probably paid as close attention to Champaign city government as anybody in the community over the past 5 or 6 years," Hulten said. "I've grown to love city government, I've grown to love the people who are involved, the culture of cooperation and problem solving that exists on the staff and on the council, and I'd really like to be a part of that."
Hulten says he hasn't decided whether he'll continue producing Illinipundit if appointed to the Champaign City Council, saying he may no longer have the time. But he says if appointed, he'll run for the council seat in the 2011 mid-term election.
The process approved by the Champaign City Council last night gives applications until March 22 to apply for the position. The council will interview the candidates at a special study session, and vote on their selection on April 20.
The U-S Commerce Department has awarded $22.5 million for Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband project. Now, the Champaign and Urbana city councils and the university of Illinois have 30 days to decide if they'll commit matching funds to the project --- a combined total of $1.3 million.
Champaign City Councilman Will Kyles says he's looking forward to a March 16 council meeting with the consultant the two cities hired to review the Big Broadband proposal. Kyles says he wants to ask Doug Dawson about his concerns with the long-term financial viability of the Big Broadband plan.
"I think it's more the sustainability piece that we're concerned about, as in his report he's projected that we would eventually start losing money. And he also talked about how technology is always changing. So I'd definitely want to talk to him," said Kyles
The federal stimulus money announced Tuesday would fund two major components of the Big Broadband project --- the installation of underground fiber-optic rings making up the backbone of service, and fiber-to-the-home installation of the service in areas considered underserved by broadband providers.
Two other components did not win federal funding. They're both aimed at expanding computer access for underserved populations. Big Broadband proponent Mike Smeltzer says efforts are already underway to re-enter those components in the 2nd round of federal funding.
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