Illinois Public Media News
A new dispute has erupted among a utility, environmental officials and neighbors near a Champaign site that decades ago hosted a manufactured gas plant.
Ameren has been treating soil and groundwater on the site but maintains that contamination from the residue buried in the soil has not leached out into the surrounding area. The Champaign County Health Care Consumers disputes that, and today they say a nearby water main replacement project is digging up some of that questionable soil.
The group's director, Claudia Lenhoff, says Illinois American Water, Ameren and the city left neighbors in the dark over the safety of the water main project.
"This corridor here should be tested in order to remove any doubt to whether it's safe or not to be digging this soil and into the groundwater," Lennhoff said. "Just a few feet that way (toward the site itself) is contaminated."
Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris says the water company cleared the project with them. "We were aware of what they're doing. They are aware of what we're doing," Morris said. "They know what the extent of the contamination is. And there is no contamination that they would need to be concerned about.'
But one neighbor, Magnolia Cook, distrusts whatever Ameren is saying about the site's safety. "Ameren has never told us the truth about anything, so why would we believe what Ameren is saying as far as this site is concerned, "Cook said. "How come the Illinois EPA is not out here to see what's underneath this dirt while they're digging?"
Neighbors have questioned why the Illinois EPA issued a permit for the project using Ameren's test results. However, Randy West, local field operations superintendent with Illinois American Water, says they commissioned their own soil testing along the water main site, and found no evidence of any contamination from the old gas plant.
As the union that represents graduate student employees threatens a strike, University of Illinois administrators are laying out some ground rules for all employees.
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization say they could call a walkout within the next week if it doesn't see progress in contract talks with Urbana campus negotiators.
U of I Spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the union has a right to strike, but grad students who teach classes for undergraduates have an obligation to make appropriate plans.
"If an instructor is planning to change a course time or course location or something like that, that instructor is expected to let students know in advance about any of those changes or any arrangements that might be made," Kaler said.
Kaler also says U of I employees who aren't part of the GEO but don't want to cross picket lines to work will have to use vacation days to do so. Both sides in the contract dispute expect to begin another negotiating session next week, but GEO spokesman Peter Campbell warned that a strike could be called before then.
Members of the union representing graduate employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus have overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote. The Graduate Employees Organization says 92 percent of members voting last week approved the question.
Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Peter Campbell says a strike committee held its first meeting Sunday, and is making plans for a potential walkout by graduate and teaching assistants. However, Campbell says they want to get back to the bargaining table quickly. While the next tentative date for a meeting between GEO and university negotiators is November 17th. Campbell says the union is asking the administration to meet with them as often as possible before then, in the hopes of making progress towards a new contract before any walkout is held.
"The GEO continues to remain committed to negotiating in good faith in the bargaining room", says Campbell. "But GEO members have authorized and are ready to call a strike at any moment.
Grad student employees have been working at the U of I Urbana campus without a contract all this semester. Campbell says their two top concerns in current contract talks are a living wage for all union members and protection for tuition waivers.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said Sunday night that while the administration recognizes the union's right to strike, it does not feel a strike would be in the union's or the university's best interests.
The State of Illinois plans to start its early release of inmates Tuesday. It's part of an effort to save money in the prison system. The move comes about four months after the state first announced the plan. As many as one thousand prisoners could eventually be let go before their sentences are complete.
Sixty two prisoners will be freed in this first group. Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says most of them currently live at the department's adult transition centers, "basically meaning that these are people who are already living and working in the community."
Smith says inmates housed in transition centers work or go to school in the day, but must return to the dorm-like facility at night.
Illinois has eight of them ... one each in Carbondale, Decatur and Peoria. The rest are in and around Chicago. Smith couldn't say from which of these the inmates will be released, but she expects it will be spread out over several locations.
Nor could Smith say where the newly-freed prisoners will go to. But she says local authorities have been notified.
Smith says the Department of Corrections is continuing evaluations to choose other eligible inmates. The department must deem them non-violent and low-level offenders, and they must have less than a year of their sentence left to serve.
A $123,454,993 county budget plan for the fiscal year starting December 1st passed through the Champaign County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night --- and comes up for a full county board vote November 19th.
The budget cuts spending from the county's General Corporate Fund by 7-point-2 percent from original 2009 budget plan. Unlike the 4-point-5 percent cuts made partway through FY 2009, these new cuts are targeted and permanent. County Adminstrator Deb Busey says they initially planned for cuts of 6 percent --- but had to go back and cut more as sales and income tax revenue continued to decline.
"We had to cut everything we could from Commodities, Services and Capital at that point", says Busey. "So we went back and focused on recently added positions, or offices where staffing levels are high than in offices in comparable counties. And we added additional personnel cuts to achieve the total 7.2% cut in General Corporate."
Busey says the cuts assume that county tax revenue has bottomed out, and won't fall any further in 2010. Meanwhile, the new budget plan raises spending by nearly ten million dollars at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, which handles everything from long-range urban planning to Head Start programs. Busey says the increase is due to new federal grants --- much of it courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The growth in the entire budget is almost entirely attributable to the Regional Planning Commission", says Busey.
The Finance Committee also approved a county property tax levy of $26,601,528 --- an increase of roughly 600-thousand dollars from the year before. Busey says that levy will produce an estimated property tax rate of 73.64 cents per $100 assessed valuation, down from the previous tax rate of 74.26 cents.
A shelter for women escaping domestic violence says slow state funding may force it to close before long.
The human resources manager of A Woman's Place in Urbana says there's no set date at which the shelter would need to close without funding. But Tara Bossert says she's had to lay off about a dozen employees. Services have been curtailed to little more than emergency housing for victims and their children as well as a 24 hour hotline, and the shelter may not meet payroll for a second straight pay period.
Bossert says the facility is getting little from the state Department of Human Services, other than sympathy.
"We talked to the comptroller's office because they ultimately release the payment to us, and they've basically given us the same answer -- they understand our situation, they sympathize. But they can't expedite anything because they don't have any money to release," Bossert said.
Carol Knowles is with the state comptroller's office, which funnels state money to A Woman's Place and other agencies. She says a lack of revenue is causing fund emergencies for many agencies, and it's hard to tell when payments will catch up.
Bossert says state officials have told her that A Woman's Place is near the top of the priority list for funding when it becomes available. In the meantime, she says volunteers have stepped up to help, but many of the services require specially-trained people.
A judge has issued a temporary restraining order delaying enforcement of a law requiring doctors to notify parents of teens seeking an abortion.
The order issued Wednesday was sought by the American Civil Liberties Union. It is to remain in effect until the judge can hear arguments on the group's opposition.
It came just hours after the state's Medical Disciplinary Board voted not to extend a 90-day grace period put into place in August.
The law requires doctors to notify the parents or guardians of girls 17 or younger 48 hours before a teens gets an abortion. There are provisions that allow girls to bypass parental notification.
Illinois' law was passed in 1995 but never enforced because of various court actions.
Negotiators for the University of Illinois and the union for Urbana campus graduate student workers have met three times this week. Now, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, is holding a strike authorization vote.
The vote began at a membership meeting Wednesday night, and continues through Friday. GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says even if their members vote to authorize a strike, they'd like to avoid a walkout. He says the potential for a strike is having an effect on its own.
"It seems apparent that the pressure being exerted by moving up toward a strike and increasing the possibility of a strike, that that is having a positive effect on negotiations", says Campbell. "So I would say they're going better, but there's still a very long way to go."
Campbell says the U of I administration made a new comprehensive contract offer at yesterday's federally mediated bargaining session --- but he says GEO members overwhelmingly rejected it at last night's meeting. The union is seeking better wages, health care and child care, while the administration has cited tight finances.
Campbell says results of the strike authorization vote should be ready by Monday, or perhaps over the weekend. If the strike authorization is approved, a GEO strike committee would decide whether to call a strike. Campbell says a strike would NOT interfere with contract talks.
The recent announcement of a proposed merger between Carle Foundation Hospital and Carle Clinic has generated a lot of response.
But little of that was negative in a 2-hour state hearing in Urbana Wednesday morning. Support for the plan came from not only Carle administrators and physicians, but those who partner with the Clinic and hospital, like the United Way and Francis Nelson Health Center.
The $250 million merger would create a single not-for-profit organization with the intent of expanding charity care and more efficient operation. Claudia Lenhoff, the executive director of Champaign County Health Care Consumers, says the change in ownership could be one of the best things for the community. "Having Carle Clinic become a non-profit provider that abides by Carle Hospital's financial assistance policies as proposed in the application to the state will result in tremendous access for thousands of community members who are currently locked out of health care." said Lenhoff. Lenhoff's group is requesting some changes with the merger, including acceptance of all forms of health insurance, and for Carle to keep supporting its taxing districts that would lose revenue under the non-profit structure.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says she can't endorse the merger unless the new organization can shift those funds onto other taxing bodies. "They account for almost 10% of our total assessed valuation," said Prussing. "The loss of Carle's payment of its fair share of the cost of fire, police, and public works would be devastating, and would place an unfair burden on all other Urbana taxpayers." Prussing says an agreement is being discussed with Carle officials in which payments would be made to the city in lieu of property taxes for clinic properties, and to let the courts decide whether hospital-owned properties would be taxable. Illinois' Health Facilities and Services Review Board will rule on the merger in March.
An accreditation team is coming to Champaign Thursday to review policies and procedures at the city's police department. But the police department's critics are questioning the accreditation program --- and the timing of its visit.
Champaign Police Chief R-T Finney serves on the board of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which sponsors the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program or ILEAP. The year-old program is billed as a lower-cost alternative to a more rigorous national accreditation program, known as CALEA, for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies..
The Reverend Evelyn Underwood of the Champaign-Urbana Ministerial Alliance questioned the city's use of a less rigorous program from a group tied to Finney, just weeks after the death of 15 year old Kiwane Carrington during a police confrontation. She told the city council Tuesday night that ILEAP has accredited only one police department so far, in Kankakee.
"Apparently, police departments are not lining up to get in on this opportunity", said Underwood. "So perhaps Champaign is doing the Illinois Law Enforcement Accreditation Program a favor more than the other way around."
City Manager Steve Carter says the Champaign Police Department sees ILEAP accreditation as a stepping stone for eventual accreditation by CALEA. He says the timing of the accreditation team's visit is unfortunate, but that the visit was scheduled before Carrington's death.
The ILEAP accreditation team will take public comment by phone during its visit to Champaign --- Thursday, November 5th from 4 to 6 PM. The number to call is 217-403-7015. Comment can also be emailed to Accreditation team member Pat Solar of the Genoa Police Department, at firstname.lastname@example.org. ILEAP's accreditation standards are available online at www.ilchiefs.org. A city news release says comments must address the Champaign Police Department's ability to comply with ILEAP standards.
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