Illinois Public Media News
Gov. Pat Quinn says state government is in a battle against a massive budget deficit and it's a battle the state can't afford to lose.
In a speech to the General Assembly on Wednesday, the Democratic governor said the deficit in the upcoming year will reach $13 billion. Quinn says the state has to get rid of that deficit and strengthen state finances or pay the prices for years to come. He's calling for more than $2 billion in budget cuts, including major cuts to education.
Quinn specifically rejects the idea of across-the-board cuts, which have been proposed by his Republican opponent for governor. He calls that a "chain saw'' approach.
The Champaign County Board is getting ready to create a separate commission to come up with new county board district boundaries after the new census is completed. The proposal survived vigorous debate Tuesday night at the county board's committee-of-the-whole meeting.
Backers of the Redistricting Commission say it would take the task of redrawing the county board district map out of the hands of partisan politicians. Outside of four seats for county board members, the commission would feature seven independent at-large members from diverse backgrounds - nominated by the county board chair and approved by the county board. Democratic County Board member Sam Smucker challenged the proposal --- he says the county board is best suited to redraw the district map, because it's an elected body.
"I just disagree with (the) idea that this committee, which is going to be not elected but selected, is somehow the even-handed committee" says Smucker.. "The even-handed committee is the will of the voters."
But backers like Urbana Democrat Steve Beckett say the Redistricting Commission would follow strict standards in redrawing the county map, and be free of political interference.
"Is it such a terrible idea to vote this before open in public. Where everybody can see what you're dong?" said Beckett.
The measure passed the committee-of-the-whole 16 to 8, with support from most Republicans and half the Democrats present. A final Champaign County Board vote is expected later this month.
Meanwhile, a proposal for a county board with fewer members and single member districts attracted just four speakers at a public hearing last night. Policy Committee Chairman Tom Betz says he'll schedule a 2nd hearing --- perhaps at a different location --- to gather more comment.
The Chairman of the Iroquois County Board says a proposal to close the county jail may not be perfect, but is worth looking at for three to four months.
Ron Schroeder commends County Sheriff Eldon Sprau for at least coming up with a cost-saving measure. It's costing about $600,000 a year to operate the aging jail, which was built in 1964. Sprau says at this rate, his fuel budget will be exhausted in six months, keeping deputies from patrolling. Schroder says taking prisoners to Kankakee County would save about $250,000, and enable Iroquois County to hire back four sheriff's deputies who lost their jobs last week. However, closing the jail would mean 10 correctional officers. Schroder says the only other alternative, a voter-backed public safety tax, has seen no success with voters. "When the public safety tax for remodeling the jail failed, then we went to a public safety tax to keep the people on staff, that failed," says Schroder. "We went to unions and asked for somebacks - that failed. So you tell me what we're supposed to do."
Officials in Kankakee County have already agreed to house prisoners from Iroquois County. But Watseka Police Chief Roger Lebeck says the county's savings would mean additional costs for him, paying another officer overtime while one of his officers took a prisoner to Kankakee. Lebeck suspects closing the jail would mean more I-Bonds, or prisoners who are issued notices to appear in court. "You must show up at that date and time, or else a warrant will be issued for your arrest, that kind of thing,' says Lebeck. "We don't I-Bond on felonies, there's no bond amount set for that statutorily, and that's something a judge sets so normally they sit in the jail until they see the judge. So domestic batteries, those kinds of things, they'll have to go to the jail."
Schroder says Iroquois County Board members expect to hold several meetings before holding a vote on closing the jail.
Removing one-way signs from a residential street doesn't usually attract a lot of attention - but the city of Champaign is calling a traffic-pattern change this afternoon a big step forward for one neighborhood.
12 years ago neighbors asked the city to convert portions of four streets in the Bristol Place neighborhood into one-way street. The thinking was that the inconvenience would discourage crime on those streets.
Eugene Barnes of the community group Metanoia Centers has watched crime slowly decline in that area since then. But he gives the traffic pattern only a small share of the credit.
"We had drug dealing and prostitution. And it takes a different shape over a period of time -- you learn to adapt to new situations," Barnes said. "So along with urban planning, you've got to look at the human factor (and) what else is going to be involved with that. Just one-way streets alone are not that great a deterrent."
Still, Barnes says neighbors today asked for the resumption of two way traffic on the streets - he says the neighborhood has improved since 1998, but he says neighbors and police will have to keep up their surveillance.
After weeks of discussions and revisions, the Champaign School Board approved 2-point-3-million dollars in budget cuts and new revenue last (Monday) night. The move comes in reaction to delays and expected cuts in state funding.
Some of the changes to the Unit Four budget are permanent --- like the elimination of nine administrative positions and four high school-level positions. But others can only be done once --- such as plans to sell two plots of land to raise 435-thousand dollars. School board member Stig Lanesskog says he had misgivings about one-time items at first --- but no longer.
"I've become less concerned about that", says Lanesskog, "because the last thing I want to do is have, in this economy, more people lose their jobs earlier than they need to"
But board member Greg Novak says the board should have looked for more savings through permanent cuts --- in case delayed state payments don't arrive in time for the start of school next fall.
"Because what happens all too often, is we'll get to September, and your buildings' budgets are all that's left to cut", says Novak. "And that which we're trying to protect will be the only thing left to cut."
In all, Unit Four is cutting 1-point-9 million dollars in spending, and selling land worth an estimated 435-thousand dollars, for a total budget decrease of 2-point-3 million. Champaign school board member Susan Grey says she expects that the state's financial problems will keep their budgets tight for the next two or three years.
"And depending on what happens with the state budgets, there may be some cuts that are just completely out of our control", says Grey. "How do we fine $1,400,000. if the state does indeed cut our funding by at least ten percent. It could be more, we don't know."
Other school districts are also considering steep budget cuts --- including the Urbana and Mahomet-Seymour districts. The Urbana school board will be hearing public comment on their proposed budget cuts at meetings set for tonight Tuesday and Wednesday
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.
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