Illinois Public Media News
The state of Illinois' backlog of payments is starting to worry University of Illinois leaders.
Interim president designate Stan Ikenberry says the U of I is still waiting on more than $388 million in state funding that would normally be in their hands by now. But Ikenberry says the university has essentially been unpaid since the start of the fiscal year in July.
Southern Illinois University has warned that continued cash shortages could result in missed payrolls. But Ikenberry says the U of I has not faced that problem yet because of revenue from outside enterprises and research grants.
"The longer it goes on, the tougher the challenge," Ikenberry said. "In all fairness, the University of Illinois is probably in the strongest position of any university in the state, but even for us it's certainly an increasing challenge."
Ikenberry says the state needs to work sooner rather than later on a plan to resolve the budget situation through a combination of revenue increases and belt-tightening.
Illinois's two Democratic senators are reacting warily to President Obama's plans for future military involvement in Afghanistan.
Senior senator Dick Durbin issued a terse two-sentence statement saying while the president asked for more time to formulate his plan, he'll take time to respond later.
The state's other senator, Roland Burris, said while he supports the ultimate goal of transferring the responsibility of stability to Afghan forces, he worries how elevated troop levels will affect any future exit strategy.
15th district Republican congressman Tim Johnson was more direct in his response - he says the US should do the reverse and pull troops out of Afghanistan, questioning the wisdom of the war.
As word spread of President Obama's plans to send an additional 30-thousand troops, demonstrations lined the streets in several cities, calling for an end to the 8-year occupation there.
About 30 University of Illinois students and other Champaign-Urbana residents took to the corners of Green and Wright streets, staging brief 'die-ins' every time the stoplight turned red and the intersection was clear.
Groups like the Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort and International Socialist Organization say the President has appeared to change his tone about Afghanistan since running an anti-war campaign last year. Protester Karen Medina says Obama's strategy won't begin to help build a government for the Afghan people:
"A lot of people say we're there to promote democracy, and democracy has never been promoted by another country being militarily present," Medina said. "If you really are doing what you're saying you're doing, then either you're lying about wanting democracy there or you're doing it the wrong way."
The groups cite a CNN poll saying that 57% of Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, while Western-run polls show about 75% of Afghans favor negotiations among themselves.
About 70 similar protests were scheduled across the country yesterday.
Things could be turning around for an Urbana domestic violence shelter recently forced into layoffs and reduced services.
A Woman's Place has received more than $120,000 in back payments owed by the state. Executive Director Tami Tunnell expects the shelter to remain on an expedited payment schedule for the next six months.
The agency hadn't expected to receive any payments until mid-December. Tunnell says the news came as shock, but she'll take a conservative approach when looking at the months ahead:
"So we're got going to jump and bring everybody back right aw, " Tunnell said. "Hopefully one of these days soon we'll be back to some semblance of normal, but what we'll be looking at is how much we need to set aside in the bank account in case this happens again and the state gets backed up."
A Woman's Place was forced to lay off 10 employees last month, reducing its staff to six. Tunnell says some may be brought back for part-time work around the holidays, but won't do any more hiring until early next year. A Woman's Place had also stopped taking new admissions. It's now serving about 18 families, some staying at the shelter, and others who have found other places to live with the agency's help.
Carol Knowles, a spokeswoman for Illinois comptroller Dan Hynes, says her office is getting flooded with requests each day from various social service agencies. She says the letters from A Woman's Place showed the most urgent need for funding. The state currently has a backlog of $4.4 billion in unpaid bills.
The Champaign police officer involved in the October shooting death of 15 year old Kiwane Carrington has continued to do some work for the department --- despite being on paid administrative leave.
Officer Daniel Norbits was placed on leave after Carrington was killed by a shot from his gun during a confrontation that also involved another youth and Champaign Police Chief R-T Finney. But at Tuesday night's Champaign City Council meeting, City Manager Steve Carter says Norbits has continued to do some office work for Champaign Police.
"He's been in and out of the department, over time", says Carter, "and he has helped out in what would be considered some light-duty work ---some inventory work, civilian clothes, non-public contact --- a little bit. But his work on those projects has been completed, and he'll continue to be on administrative leave, until at least after the state's attorney makes her decision. And then it'll be evaluated as we go along, in terms of what his status it."
Carter's disclosure came after Martell Miller and Brian Dolinar asked city officials to comment on rumors they had heard of Norbits being back at work.
An investigation of the Carrington shooting --- led by Illinois State Police --- was completed nearly three weeks ago and handed over to Champaign County State's Attorney Julie Rietz. Rietz has said she will not release the report until after reviewing it completely.
The Champaign City Council voted last night to extend the life of its East University Avenue Tax Increment Financing District for another year. That will give the city time to seek a 12-year extension from the state.
Enacted in the 1980s, the East University Avenue TIF District covers the commercial area east of the Canadian National tracks, including University Avenue and nearby sections of First and Second Streets. City officials say the TIF district has helped spur development --- but not as much as in downtown and Campustown. As the city makes plans to seek a long-term extension of the TIF district, City Councilwoman Marcie Dodds says she thinks flood control and beautification work done on the 2nd Street reach of the Boneyard Creek will spur development that can link downtown and Campustown together.
"It'll do it not only geographically and physically, but also psychologically", says Dodds. "For years, it was campus over here and Champaign over there and downtown far away. The two never met. It was even sometimes difficult to get to one from the other. And I hope that this changes that."
Property tax revenue above a certain level in a TIF District is spent within the district, focusing on building renovations, streetscape work and infrastructure improvements.
A proposal to use tax money from Champaign County wind turbine farms to pay for renewable energy for county facilities was voted down by a Champaign County Board committee Monday night.
Members of the Environment and Land Use Committee voted 4 to 3 against Urbana Democrat Sam Smucker's proposal to place a portion of those tax revenues into a special Renewable Energy Fund.
The County Board recently approved regulations for placing wind farms in the area, and expects to receive applications from companies in the coming months. Smucker says when that happens... the county should use a share of the tax revenue to cut its energy costs --- perhaps in league with other local governments.
"One possibility is that we would simply try to move some of our buildings towards solar energy," says Smucker. "Another possibility is that we would try to go in with other governments --- the city governments or the school boards --- and build a wind turbine to power our facilities. All of that's up in the air. But it seems to me the first step is to make sure the resources are there."
Smucker says his proposal would make sure some of the money made by wind farms in Champaign County, is used to help the county. "When a company builds a wind turbine in Champaign County, that energy is going to get sold on the open electricity markets", says Smucker. "So that energy's going to go outside of Champaign County, most likely. But this is the way we can capture some of the growth in renewable energy, and bring it right back home. "
Under Smucker's proposal, the Renewable Energy Fund would collect about 100-dollars per year from each wind turbine built in Champaign County.
Smucker says he may bring his proposal back to the County Board next year. He says his big challenge will be to convince his fellow board members of the need for long-term energy planning.
A Savoy man was expected to make his first court appearance Wednesday afternoon in connection to a fatal crash that occurred Monday night on Interstate 74 in Champaign.
State Police arrested 27-year old David McClain Tuesday on charges of reckless homicide and leaving the scene of a fatal accident. The wreck claimed the life of 26-year old Yingbo Zhou, a University of Illinois student from China. Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup says a preliminary autopsy shows the woman died of a traumatic head injury. Four others were injured in the crash. State Police say McClain's SUV crashed into a car in which Zhou was a passenger, and then sped away. According to court records, he had been arrested last month for driving with a suspended license, and faced many other traffic violations in Champaign County the last several years.
Unemployment has crept upward in Illinois' metropolitan areas, including Champaign-Urbana, Danville and Decatur. The state department of employment services says the October jobless rate in Champaign-Urbana and vicinity hit 8.6 percent, three tenths of a point higher than September and more than two and a half percent higher than October of last year. The rate for the Danville area rose to 12.1 percent, with Decatur checking in at 12.7 percent, third highest behind Rockford and Kankakee. The state says Champaign-Urbana lost about 18 hundred jobs when compared to this time last year.
The Gateway Studios shutdown ... controversy over the Safe Haven tent community ... and the financial crisis at Restoration Urbana Ministries. All three involved problems with housing for the poor in Champaign. And they were on the minds of Champaign City Council members Tuesday night, as they endorsed a three-pronged approach to city housing problems.
Champaign Council members told city staff to work up detailed proposals on a plan for emergency tenant relocation, for cases like the Gateway Studios shutdown ... a safety net fund to help local agencies provide more emergency shelter services ... and a comprehensive housing study done in cooperation with other local governments.
District Two Councilman Mike LaDue called the proposals conservative, given the scope of the housing problem.
"We're suggesting a very tiny amount of caulk for some very large cracks in the planks that constitute our social platform, through which people fall all the time", said LaDue. "And they will be falling more, and further and with greater frequency as the economy worsens.
But District Five Councilman Dave Johnson said they still have to decide the city's exact role in preventing homelessness.
"Are we a facilitator?" asked Johnson. "Are we the big brother to help these agencies, developers and the federal government to get involved and fund these projects and work together? Are we like (Priceline TV pitchman) William Shatner --- are we supposed to be the "Negotiator" and get this done? Or are we supposed to really be a builder and developer and get into the housing business. I mean, that's kind of the thousand-pound gorilla in the room here. Are we supposed to do that? Is this a fundamental issue that the city should get involved in? And of course, that begs the next question --- where's the money coming from? Who's the funding source? Is the city the funding source? Are our constituents, through taxing, the funding source?"
For now, the city has identified 60-thousand dollars in existing funds to play for two years of emergency tenant relocation, and 30-thousand to help fund the housing study.
Champaign Neighborhood Services Director Kevin Jackson says they'll be back before the council with specifics on the three proposals in December and January.
Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden says part of a new state election law threatens the principle of a secret ballot.
He's filed a lawsuit that would block local elections officials from utilizing the Undervote Notification Law in February's primary. That provision would indicate that someone failed to cast a single vote for a statewide office, like Governor or Comptroller, or even one that's uncontested, like Secretary of State. Shelden says after a tabulating machine indicates an error message, an election judge would give that person the option of keeping their ballot as is, filling out a new one, or completing their ballot. Shelden says people shouldn't be forced to vote for an office if they're not familiar with the candidates, or simply don't care.
"I believe that part of what's going to happen here is the intent is to try to intimidate people into casting all the votes for all the races," says Shelden. "Maybe they haven't made up their mind on a race, and for whatever reason, they want to leave that race blank, and we think it's their right to leave it blank and not be harrassed at this final step in the voting process." The Undervote law was part of the 2007 omnibus election bill. Shelden's lawsuit filed Friday in Champaign County Court would seek an injunction to block the use of the provision in February, but he hopes to have it declared unconstitutional. No other lawsuits have been filed in the state, but Shelden says other county clerks are considering such action, with hopes that state lawmakers will change the omnibus bill. He estimates around 8,000 Champaign County voters will receive the error message if the provision remains in place for the upcoming primary.
New York is only other state to have passed the undervote provision, but an emergency rule was passed there to block the use of it before the state's last election.
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