Illinois Public Media News
A proposal to bring a fiber-optic broadband network to Champaign-Urbana targets the use of federal stimulus money for much of the project.
The concept would form a partnership between both cities and the University of Illinois. The entities want to apply for federal grant money, which could fund up to 80% of a new broadband system. U of I Director of Networking Mike Smeltzer says it could offer service that's up to 10 times faster than anything currently offered, which might be necessary one day. "So let's say you're the typical American family and you've got 2.4 people living there.' says Smeltzer. "That might mean you have 3 television sets, and if you want to watch 3 HD television programs at the same time, that's about 60 megs of bandwith. You're not going do to that over a 6 meg connection and you're not going to even watch one HD channel over a 7 meg connection." Smeltzer also says UC2B, or Urbana Champaign Big Broadband, should be less expensive than any cablemodem or DSL service.
The federal stimulus funds are earmarked for areas underserved by broadband access. Smeltzer expects local governments, businesses, and the U of I would have to contribute about $6 million combined to match a federal grant. The fiber-optic network would require a few rounds of funding, and about two years to build.
Illinois lawmakers adopted about $16.3 billion in spending Wednesday to cover essential state expenses, such as covering state employee paychecks.
The vote in the Illinois House sends the Illinois Senate five pieces of legislation that cover payroll, basic education funding and money to pay hospitals for serving low-income patients.
But as the May 31 deadline for adjournment creeps up, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn still have to address billions of dollars in requests for state assistance and contributions to public pension systems.
Quinn has proposed budget cuts and an increased state income tax to cover those, neither of which today's action addressed.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Senate voted 47 to 12 on a funding bill for statewide construction that that would raise liquor taxes, driver fees and enact a major gambling expansion. In eastern Illinois, Democrat Mike Frerichs voted for the bill, while Republicans Dale Righter and Dan Rutherford voted against it. The measure now moves to the House.
The aim of the bill is to pay for a $26 billion public works programs and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The legislation would legalize gambling on video poker machines already in many bars. Supporters hope that would bring in $375 million a year.
It also would raise liquor taxes, generating about $113 million.The cost of a six-pack would increase by less than three cents.
Driver's license and license plates would go up, too.
The public works program is a combination of federal and state money. To come up with its $12 billion share, Illinois would sell bonds. To repay that debt, it has to come up with new sources of money --- the gambling, taxes and fees.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's plan to reform the public pension system to save money would actually cost $95 billion extra over the next three decades.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show Quinn would cut in half the amount of money the state would put into retirement systems for state employees in the next five years. But those short-term savings would be accompanied by much larger long-term costs.
The total cost would be $532 billion through 2045, up from $437 billion under the current pension plan.
Representatives of employees' unions and a legislative finance commission criticized the idea.
Quinn is trying to close an $11.6 billion deficit by raising income taxes and cutting spending. He has proposed lowering pension benefits for new employees to save money.
Flooding from last Friday's heavy rainstorm was too much for a group of neighbors living south of the Kraft plant in Champaign. They want the city to do something about the poor drainage in their neighborhood.
James Creighton says his neighborhood has it worse than anyone, and he doesn't just mean last Friday's downpour.
"I believe it was Council member (Karen) Foster who asked three of four weeks ago if John Street was the worst neighborhood. And the answer was no, it was Copper Slough -- my neighborhood, south of Kraft, that's the worst neighborhood," Creighton told the council
He was among about a dozen people from the Copper Slough or Washington Street neighborhood located between Prospect and Mattis who came to Tuesday night's Champaign City Council meeting for some flood relief. They brought photos and eyewitness accounts of flooded basements and streets from last Friday and from previous rainstorms. Mary Ann Keith says last Friday's floodwaters came at her from both sides.
"When the water comes from Prospect, it comes from Mattis," Keith said. "It drains both directions. We actually stand outside and watch it come down the street."
Mayor Jerry Schweighart says the problem is a big one, and fixing it won't be easy. An upgrade of the neighborhood's storm sewer system would cost the city millions of dollars it doesn't have. In the meantime, Champaign's Neighborhood Services Department will hold a meeting in the neighborhood next week to listen to people's concerns. And City Engineer Roland White says new eco-friendly techniques like water permeable pavements and raingardens to hold in groundwater could help limit the degree of flooding during future rains.
The Champaign City Council is not protesting the Champaign County Board proposal to allow wind turbine farms in the county --- but it does have a suggestion.
Council members voted 5 to 4 Tuesday night to ask the county board to consider extending the city's buffers outside its borders where it has a say in zoning decisions to 2-and-a-half miles for wind farms. It's currently 1-and-a-half miles for all city zoning issues. Councilman Tom Bruno says he supports wind farms, but believes it's important that they not be built close to areas the city has slated for future development.
"I think that sound planning would have these wind farms, if they're appropriate for Champaign County, be built at a little safer distance from what is already inhabited municipality to allow for years of possible future growth without the conflict between wind turbines and residential housing," Bruno said.
Bruno supported a protest of the county board proposal, but the measure was narrowly defeated, 5 to 4. By the same margin, the Champaign City Council passed a resolution asking the county board to simply give them the 2-and-a-half mile zoning buffer. It's a request that's already been turned down by the county board's Environment and Land Use Committee. The full Champaign County Board will consider the wind farm proposal Thursday night.
Last week's sudden closure of a residential hotel in Champaign forced dozens of people to look for a place to live on short notice. It also forced the City of Champaign into action - not just to condemn the Gateway Studios for lack of utilities, but to help arrange housing for those residents, most of them low-income. Housing advocates see the evictions - and a similar incident at the Autumn Glen apartment Complex in Rantoul - to call for changes in housing policy in Champaign and Urbana. Former Urbana alderman Danielle Chynoweth has brought a proposal to the Champaign and Urbana city councils to offer cash assistance for relocation to people left homeless by condemnation - the landlord would be held responsible for that money. She spoke with AM 580's Tom Rogers.
The head of Champaign's Neighborhood Services department, Kevin Jackson, told AM 580's Jim Meadows last week that while rental help is available from agencies, some of it is based on the applicant's background. Jackson says the city is open to discussion on permanent policy changes.
A Champaign School Board candidate who lost her race by two votes will not contest the election results in court. Lynn Stuckey says after looking at previous case law, there doesn't appear to be any grounds for her to challenge the vote count - a recount last month found that Stig Lanesskog edged Stuckey by two votes for the third of three school board seats in an eight-way election. Stuckey says she'll still attend and speak out at Unit 4 board meetings and will decide later whether to run again.
The assistant director of Ohio's prison system has won the top job at the Illinois Department of Corrections.
Gov. Pat Quinn announced Thursday that he is nominating Michael Randle to serve as director of the Illinois prison agency. He calls Randle "the best of the best.''
If confirmed by the state Senate, Randle will take over a system facing major challenges. Its prisons house far more inmates than they were designed to hold, while the size of the prison staff has been slashed by 25 percent.
Randle says he's concerned about the safety of overworked prison guards, but he's staying quiet about any possible solutions until he reviews the situation.
The Champaign City Council did some budget cutting during Tuesday night's study session. Council members approved a series of cuts to the budgets of police, fire, public works and administrative departments. Nearly 2.2 million dollars went on the chopping block. Many of the cuts eliminated positions that are currently vacant, or will become vacant in time, due to retirements.
District Four Councilwoman Marci Dodds voted against the cuts in police service --- the only "no" vote cast against the budget cuts last night. Dodds opposed the elimination of three vacant patrol officer positions. She says losing those positions will make it harder for the police department to staff its Community Assistance Teams --- teams she says have made a big difference in the Garden Hills neighborhood.
"And it could be happenstance, but the fire reductions and the public works reductions seemed less onerous than losing three police officers, particularly when we already have an understaffed district that's growing," Dodds said.
Champaign Police Chief R.T. Finney says the Community Assistance Teams will continue, even without the three patrol officer positions. But he says any additional cuts could endanger the program. Finney says while the police budget cuts may affect some programs, it will have no impact on the department's ability to respond to emergency calls. And he says the department is apply for a grant to pay the lion's share of restoring the three patrol officer positions.
The Champaign City Council will continue to hold budget hearings in May. A final vote is expected in June.
Champaign city officials say they did what they could to help residents of Gateway Studios, who were forced to move out when Ameren turned off the gas and electricity yesterday (Tuesday). The owners had fallen behind in its utility bills, but residents paying for rooms by the week or the month didn't learn about the impending shutdown until late last week.
Neighborhood Service Director Kevin Jackson says the city worked with local service agencies to make sure everybody who lived at the Gateway had a place to stay last night, and help in finding more permanent living quarters. Now, Jackson says he now wants to look to the future. "I know, going forward, we want to learn from this to see if there is something we could do from a local policy standpoint to prevent something like this from happening again," Jackson said.
Prevention was also on the minds of several people who came to last night's city council study session, but were not allowed to speak. After the meeting, they met in small groups with Jackson and about five city council members. The group was organized by Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. Many of them said the city of Champaign should have a policy in place to identify motels and apartment complexes in danger of closing, so residents have more advance warning. They also called for a special city fund help people who face motel or apartment closings through no fault of their own.
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