Illinois Public Media News
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he holds out hope the Department of Energy officials will visit Mattoon despite the community's desire to move on.
The Republican has been urging the DOE to reverse its decision since last week's announcement to make the city a storage site rather than home to a new coal-fired power plant. Johnson says Department Assistant Secretary James Markowski made a commitment to him Tuesday that Energy Secretary Steven Chu would still come to Mattoon. "He said he said he'd come here, so I can only take him at his word." said Johnson. "However, given the lack of credibity of the Department of Energy in this whole decision making process, their lack of transparency and lack of communication with me, I've come to not believe anything they would tell me. So the fact he said he would come, or at least his undersecretary said he'd come, is just about as believable as the fact he told us in April he'd keep us posted on an hour by hour basis."
Johnson has called the Department of Energy's decision an 'absolute betrayal' of lawmakers like him that have pushed for the FutureGen project for years. He says Coles Together made the right decision to reject the new FutureGen, adding that the reconfigured project involving a power plant in Western Illinois likely won't happen either. Johnson calls FutureGen 2.0 a bureaucratic effort to 'kick the can further down the road.
The head of a Coles County economic development group says her community is bowing out of the FutureGen project if it doesn't revert back to its original form.
In a letter to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin released today, Coles Together director Angela Griffin says the community is almost unanimously against the revised plan for the experimental power generation project as revised last week by the Department of Energy. Griffin writes that the site chosen for FutureGen is best suited for the original proposal of a coal-burning power plant matched with an underground carbon sequestration facility. The new FutureGen plan would use only the underground repository, with the carbon dioxide piped in from existing coal-burning plants that are retrofitted with another new technology. Durbin also said a training facility for the new oxy-combustion technique would be built on the site where the power plant would have gone, but no funding was committed for that facility.
In the letter, Griffin writes that "we agreed to host what was presented as the world's first near-zero emissions research and demonstration facility - the latest in power generation technology paired with underground storage for the facility's greenhouse gas emissions." But she adds that "unfortunately, our role in FutureGen 2.0 does not support that effort. If FutureGen 2.0 moves ahead with the revised structure described today, it must be without Coles County."
Speaking with Illinois Public Media, Griffin also said that public opinion had turned almost unanimously against Coles County's participation. "We didn't believe -- and the community certainly didn't believe -- that the tradeoff in giving up the site and all of the work and engineering and surveying and studying that had been done out there was worth the carbon storage facility that DOE was proposing, that there could be many more uses for that site," Griffin said.
Durbin issued a written statement Wednesday afternoon saying he was disappointed by Mattoon's decision to drop out of FutureGen. He also wrote that he is soliciting proposals from other Illinois communities that would offer to host the CO2-storage facility. Durbin wrote, "I wish cost overruns, project delays and rapid advances in science in other parts of the country had not necessitated a change in the FutureGen project. But we must face reality."
The overhauled FutureGen proposal would shave $100 million off the $1.2 billion price tag. But soon after Durbin announced the change, local lawmakers and 15th District Congressman Tim Johnson slammed the change, saying they weren't informed and that Mattoon was given only one week to decide whether to proceed. They also derided the underground CO2-storage facility as a dumping ground for outside pollution.
Mattoon's decision to drop out ends several years of lobbying for FutureGen. The area won the project in late 2007, beating out Tuscola and two Texas locations. But soon after that announcement, the Energy Department scuttled the project out of cost concerns. It was revived by the Obama administration the following year, but last week Energy Secretary Stephen Chu said technology had already passed the original FutureGen proposal by, and that retrofitting existing plants with oxy-combustion technology would be a wiser and more effective way to spend the stimulus funds earmarked for FutureGen.
Two Republican lawmakers who represent Mattoon are angry about a deadline over the future of that city's role in the FutureGen project.
They include 15th district Congressman Tim Johnson, who says he plans to question the U-S Department of Energy about the government's decision to change the scope of the clean-coal experiment. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told Mattoon government and economic development officials that they have a week to decide whether to continue their participation - last week Durbin announced that FutureGen would not include a coal-burning power plant in Mattoon, but the site would hold carbon dioxide piped in from existing power plants.
Durbin says federal funding needs to be ironed out soon. But Johnson calls the deadline insulting, saying the original plan was the result of arduous scientific examination. He says selecting another site would ignore the science that went into the selection. State representative Chapin Rose also questions how long Durbin knew of the change in plans before alerting Mattoon officials.
Champaign city officials are hoping for plenty of feedback on a draft version of their plan to improve police-community relations. The plan was posted on the city's website last week, and city spokeswoman Joan Walls says they'll be taking comments online through this Friday.
Walls says the plan is distilled from the input they received during the community forum they held on the issue last March. About 300 people attended the forum, which was held in the wake of the fatal shooting by a police officer of Kiwane Carrington last year. Walls says this is a chance for the forum participants to provide feedback on the plan developed from their discussions.
"We released this draft plan to the Forum participants as promised", says Walls, "to ask them to take a look at it, to make sure we've not lost any important information. And if there was something that maybe they heard at the Forum that perhaps was not included, to provide us with feedback. And so there's an opportunity for them to do that, through an electronic survey."
The draft plan lists 32 specific actions meant to improve relations between Champaign police and the community, especially youth.
Walls says the feedback from both forum participants and the general public will be incorporated into the draft plan to be discussed by the Champaign City Council at their August 24th study session.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that Mattoon officials decide by the end of the week whether they want to be part of the revised FutureGen clean-coal project.
Durbin made the demand Monday in a letter to Angela Griffin. She leads the Coles Together economic development group in Coles County. "We need to make sure that we understand exactly what FutureGen 2.0 represents," said Griffin. "We need to make sure that we've considered everthing - that we haven't eliminated something from consideration that's important. We need to consider the immediate impact, and we need to consider the long-term impact. This project as presented has several faces to it, and we need to consider what DOE's (The Department of Energy's) long-term plans are for a carbon storage system in Mattoon." But Griffin says she holds no ill will towards Senator Durbin, who she notes worked for this project and the Mattoon community for years, at a time when many others in Washington turned their backs on it.
Until last week FutureGen included a power plant to be built in Mattoon with carbon dioxide from its coal stored underground. The Department of Energy now wants to retrofit a plant across the state in Meredosia. Mattoon would store carbon dioxide from that plant. The department has said it needs to finalize revisions by Sept. 30 to use $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Durbin says the Department of Energy needs to find a new carbon storage site if Mattoon isn't interested. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says his request to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the changes has been turned down.
Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's plan to tax gasoline for road improvements will be brought to a vote next week.
She calls the 2-cent a gallon motor fuel tax 'a modest proposal' - contending it's more expensive to not maintain streets than to maintain them. The ordinance also calls for an automatic escalator of point-4 cents per gallon each July for three years, unless the city council suspends it. The idea passed on a 4 to 3 vote by the Urbana City Council Monday night - so a formal vote can be held next Monday. One of three 'no' votes came from Alderman Brandon Bowersox, who says he likes the idea... just not the timing of it.
"I still feel like the economy has people in such a hard place just keeping their families afloat." said Bowersox. "It's a really hard time to implement a new tax. And I guess if it were up to me alone, I'd say let's wait 6 to 12 months, and look at this as part of next year's budget."
The four tenths of a cent escalator was also a concern for Alderwoman Diane Marlin, who says the tax should be limited to road repair. Mayor Prussing says the funds may be targeted for future road projects, like traffic roundabouts.
Alderman and supporter Charlie Smyth says city leaders would identify exactly what projects the tax would be used for. He says starting out slowly, but working up to a tax of 3-point-2 cents after three years... is a good amount of money to start making an impact.
"After that, it just should simply be part of the way we do the rest of our business." said Smyth. "..which is an annual review of all of our fees and permits."
Mayor Prussing says the local fund was necessary since the state motor fuel tax has been constant for 20 years, while the cost of road repairs has more than doubled. She also contends that cities like Danville haven't driven away motorists after enacting the tax. Besides Smyth, others backing the proposal were Robert Lewis, Dennis Roberts, and David Gehrig. Bowersox, Marlin, and Heather Stevenson opposed the plan.
The Champaign School Board has unanimously approved a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff. This comes six months after negotiations began between the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union and the school district, and more than a month after the old contract expired.
The contract includes a 65 cent pay raise for teaching assistants after one year, and a 50 cent increase each year for the following two years. Board President Dave Tomlinson says teacher assistants in Champaign have traditionally made less money compared to aides in nearby school districts.
"We tried to bring them up to a comparable area over the three year period," he said, adding that teacher's aides are with students as much as teachers are during a seven hour day.
The contract also covers other positions, including custodians, maintenance personnel, and food service workers. They will see their annual salaries go up by around two-point-two percent.
Union President Mary Logsdon was congratulated by members of the school board, including Tomlinson and Superintendent Arthur Culver. Logsdon described the new contract as a victory for the union given the state's financial crisis, but she added that many of its members were not completely satisfied with the final outcome.
"You know, there are still people out there who are going to have to work two or three jobs in order to pay their bills," she said. "We're only going to get so much."
Tomlinson said he anticipates the school board cutting about two million dollars from the budget next year. Students are scheduled to return to class on August 19th.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he's 'more than upset' with the Obama administration for what he calls an absolute betrayal of what has been promised for FutureGen.
The Republican says the revamped agreement to make Mattoon a repository for underground storage of carbon emissions, rather than the home to a clean-coal burning plant, shows 'a lack of credibility' from colleagues who had support the original project the last few years. Johnson says he's hoping to set up a meeting with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu next week, with hopes he'll reconsider. "We don't know exactly what the cost is going to be, but it's definable enough that we can go ahead with the project as promised," said Johnson. "As a matter of fact, we just got a letter within the last day or two from I-EPA indicating that they were going full speed with the project. So this came as a complete suprise to us, and it came as a complete surprise to everybody in the delegation apparently with the exception of Senator (Dick) Durbin."
Johnson says the Illinois US Senator had plenty of time to take credit for FutureGen's original plan... but has now become someone he can't count on. The Congressman says Republican colleagues Mark Kirk and John Shimkus are also upset with the revamped plan. Meanwhile, the chairman of the consortium of energy companies supporting the FutureGen project said it was ready to go ahead with the revised plans. Steven Winberg of the FutureGen Alliance says they look forward to "moving the project to the new phase", and working with the Energy Department and officials in Coles County to better understand the new plan's "details and merits".
Union members have ratified a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff in the Champaign School District --- and the school board will take its vote Monday night.
The three-year contract was ratified by members of the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union Thursday night. Union President Mary Logsdon says many members weren't happy with the agreement. But she says it's the best that could be done, considering the economy and the state's fiscal crisis.
"I mean it's a hard time to negotiate right now", says Logdson. "I feel like what we were able to do, I'm pleased with. You always want more, but like I say, with the times the way they are, I felt like we did pretty well by our membership."
Logsdon declined to give firm details prior to the school board's vote. But she said there was at least one bright spot --- pay for teaching assistants.
"We were concerned about our teaching assistants, with their pay parity with other districts, and we were able to improve upon that", says Logdson.
The contract also covers custodians, food service worker, bus drivers and other non-teaching jobs in the Champaign Unit Four District. The old contract expired June 30th.
Illinois' back-to-school sales tax holiday started Friday Through August 15th, shoppers can buy clothing, shoes and school supplies --- priced up to $100 --- without having to pay the state's 5%sales tax.
Susan Hofer of the Illinois Department of Revenue says the chief reason for the tax holiday is to help families during a tight economy.
"Governor Quinn and the General Assembly felt that this year above all, we wanted to do what we could to give parents struggling financially a break on what they have to spend", says Hofer.
The sales tax holiday is also welcomed by retailers, many of which are promoting the temporary tax break in their advertising. But Mark Robyn of the Washington D-C based Tax Foundation says the savings to consumers are modest, in part because some merchants use the tax holidays to mask their own price increases. Robyn says retailers don't gain either, because shoppers just shift their buying to the tax holiday period, instead of buying more. He calls tax holidays a gimmick.
"If a state needs to offer a holiday from their sales tax", said Robyn during a news conference, "it may be a good indication that there are bigger problems with their sales tax."
Robyn's arguments are disputed by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, which lobbied for the bill creating the sales tax holiday. The group's president, David Vite, says competition will push merchants to cut prices even more.
"I'm aware of some who are going to be having 15-20% additional-off sales", says Vite. "This 5% is the icing. It's the gravy on the very good meal. It's what makes this an important economic stimulus package. It's what makes a great economic package. And retailers are going to take advantage of it by increased sales, not by increased prices."
The Illinois Retail Merchants Association lobbied for the tax holiday. Illinois joins 16 other states with tax holidays, including Missouri and Iowa. Their tax holidays also started Friday, but only run for the weekend, while the Illinois tax holiday runs through August 15th.
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