Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2009

Coke vs. Pepsi Battle in IL Government Under Auditor’s Review

Illinois' version of a cola war ended when the state gave one company an exclusive contract at all state government buildings, including most University of Illinois facilities. But an audit finds problems with how Illinois chose Pepsi over Coke.

State representatives suspicious of the 2007 deal directed the state's Auditor General to investigate. His findings show those lawmakers had good reason to question the contract. Both Pepsi and Coca Cola submitted proposals to the state. A team was assembled to score each company following strict rules. Instead, some scores were lowered for no reason. And when Coke failed to meet a points threshold, the Blagojevich Administration kept it hidden for months. It wasn't until after Pepsi won the contract that Coke was notified there had been a problem.

Auditor General Bill Holland said the whole process, from the submission of proposals to the evaluation to the notification, was weak overall.

Holland says it's a process that should have been transparent. A spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue which oversaw the process says it was fair and a success ... as Pepsi will pay 64 million dollars over ten years for the exclusive right. At least one lawmaker says the state should seek new bids.

Coca-Cola has not returned calls for comment. But in newspaper reports from last March, when the Illinois House unanimously voted for the investigation, a Coke spokesman is quoted as saying "Illinois taxpayers were shortchanged.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2009

UI Watches and Waits Before Determining Next Year’s Tuition

University of Illinois students find themselves with a black hole in their budgeting plans for the year ahead - their tuition bills.

U of I officials are in the same situation, waiting for outside factors before determining how much money they have to raise from tuition and room and board in the next school year. Chief financial officer Walter Knorr says the first indication comes next Wednesday in Governor Pat Quinn's budget address.

"That will give us our first indication of where we are," said Knorr. "To some degree that starts the thinking of...what's in the realm of possibility as far as tuition. But before you firm that up, you have to go through the whole legislative process this spring and see if that's actually what comes out at the end of the session."

However, Knorr says the U of I is attempting to set tuition and fees at the next Board of Trustees meeting in May. They may be set even before the state budget is finalized - the university has waited as late as June to set tuition because of dragged-out budget negotiations in Springfield. Other public universities are waiting for word from the state before announcing their tuition rates too.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2009

Quinn: Pontiac Prison Will Stay Open

Gov. Pat Quinn has decided to keep the Pontiac Correctional Center open.

Quinn's decision today reverses ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to close the 137-year-old prison. In a news release today, Quinn cited the need to save jobs. The prison is one of the Pontiac area's largest employers with more than 500 workers.

Last year, Blagojevich announced plans to close the prison and move many of its more than 1,500 inmates to the largely unused Thomson Correctional Center in western Illinois to save money. Lawmakers and others from the Pontiac area believed Blagojevich was using the decision to punish them for opposing his policies.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2009

Thompson Pleads Guilty To Murder In 2007 Douglas County Crime Spree

An attorney for a Chicago man who admitted killing a Douglas County deputy says he did so to avoid what might have been a lifetime alone in his cell.

William Thompson pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in a plea bargain yesterday in the June 2007 death of Douglas County Deputy Tommy Martin. The shooting happened during a crime spree that included a high-speed chase and stand-off at a bank in Arcola.

Attorney Jeff Justice says he advised Thompson to take the deal offered by prosecutors. Justice says a death sentence would likely mean decades on death row and 23 hours a day of isolation.

Douglas County Sheriff Charlie McGrew was a friend of the 59-year-old Martin. McGrew says he approves of the deal.

Thompson's co-defendant, Yusef Kareem Brown, has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2009

Ameren Plans for Cleaup at 5th and Hill Site Faces Skeptical Neighbors Wanting More

Ameren and Illinois EPA officials answered questions at an open house Wednesday about cleanup plans for a former manufactured gas plant on the east side of Champaign. Many of the questions came from people who don't think the cleanup goes far enough.

Beginning next month, Ameren plans to remove contaminated top-soil as deep as ten feet down from the former plant site at 5th and Hill Streets. Chemicals will be injected into the remaining soil and groundwater to break up toxins at deeper levels.A large tent and air handling equipment will keep dust and vapors from escaping into the surrounding neighborhood. The project will take about a year, and is designed to make the site safe for redevelopment.

But neighbors of the site, organized by Champaign County Healthcare Consumers, say they fear the cleanup process will miss contaminants that may have already been carried off site by groundwater to their properties, where it could seep into flood-prone basements.

70-year-old Ebbie Cook says he's lived near the old gas plant site all his life. He says he worries that toxic chemicals found in the coal tar left behind by the old gas plant could have direct effect on his family's health, and he'd like to see a more extensive cleanup. Cook says, "If it is contamination that's causing different types of illness, then my children and their children, if it's in their system, what could it cause?"

Cook was among those attending the open house at the Champaign City Building who said they noticed a persistent chemical smell when contractors hired by the city opened up pipes underneath Hill Street recently to do flood prevention work. In response, the Illinois EPA's Greg Dunn offered sump water inspections for any residents in the immediate area who wanted one.

"If you guys smell something, contact me", Dunn told the 5th and Hill neighbors. "Because we have an office in Champaign.I can have one of our inspectors come on over an kind of check it out."

Claudia Lennhoff of Champaign County Healthcare Consumers says the offer of home inspections was a welcome move. She also said that Illinois EPA officials had agreed to meet with the 5th and Hill neighborhood group to answer technical questions --- something they had refused to do before.

But Ameren and IEPA officials contend that the cleanup scheduled to start next month at the former plant site --- plus a very few neighboring properties --- is enough to make the area safe. They say soil and groundwater tests done at locations outside the former plant site have turned up contaminants in just a few areas --- and those areas will have cleanup work performed.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2009

Ideologically-Opposed Groups Offer Their Illinois Budget Fixes

Before Governor Pat Quinn unveils his budget proposal next week, legislators and fiscal policy experts are weighing in with advice. Illinois has a historic budget deficit, and John Tillman, the head of the Illinois Policy Institute, says it ballooned to potentially 9 billion dollars because the governor and lawmakers lacked spending discipline. He says the gap was created before the economic downturn, when Illinois was bringing in record amounts of money in taxes and fees.

"There's no reason to add more revenues if you're already getting record rates of revenue in," Tillman said, meaning Illinois needs to make cuts. But Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability takes the opposite view.

"While that may sound logical," Martire said, "it is quite clearly the absolute worst thing the state of Illinois could do. In fact we have found that if the state were to cut spending and its budget deficit was as small as $4 billion, we would lose 56 thousand jobs."

Martire says Illinois should overcome the recession by raising taxes. Martire says Illinois can't just tax like it does now -- he advocates changing the tax code.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2009

Global Campus Gets Another Vote of Confidence from UI Trustees, President

Even amid skepticism from some faculty members, the president of the University of Illinois says its Global Campus will pay for itself in two years and be an important part of the educational system. The online degree program was launched two years ago but attracted only about a dozen students at first. But president Joe White says enrollment has reached 400 students and is expected to pass 700 next year.

"We're on a plan for Global Campus to be at a financial break-even by 2011 with about 1500 students, and we're going to get there," White said.

White says the U of I is still committed to maintaining the health of its three existing brick and mortar campuses. But he says the university also has to extend its reach to people who may not have the time or money for a traditional degree. Today trustees were to approve an academic policy council to let faculty help oversee Global Campus.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2009

Chanute Air Museum Lays Groundwork for New Museum

The heads of the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul want to build a new facility, possibly breaking ground in about three years. Initial plans include hiring of an architectural engineer to complete a study on a building of roughly 700,000 square feet. The current facility is 100,000, with most of that space occupied by a hangar full of planes. The project got a boost last night with the Senate passage of an appropriations bill now awaiting the President's signature. It includes more than $118,000 for the museum, funds that Senator John McCain referred to in his list of top 10 'pork' projects on his Twitter web site recently. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson supported the funding. Museum Executive Director Hal Loebach says facilities at the old Air Force Base's Grissom Hall are 'literally falling down', with glass panes coming out of windows and leaking in a number of rooms. "Here in this building, the size of the room dictates the size of the exhibit,' says Loebach. "And so we've got several areas that we could really expand and update. We're at a point now that we are taking some exhibits down and putting them in storage because the rooms leak so badly that we can't keep anything in them." Loebach says other matching grant funds are available for a new facility, along with some state tourism funds, and private and public foundations. The museum will reveal further details of the building plan at a membership meeting on April 4th.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2009

Energy Department Math Error Could Give FutureGen New Life

Sen. Dick Durbin says an apparent $500 million math error by the Energy Department proves that its shelving of an experimental coal-fired power plant planned for Illinois was flawed.

Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker says congressional auditors have found that the department made the goof when it withdrew its support last year from the project known as FutureGen.

The error led the department to mistakenly say FutureGen had nearly doubled in cost.

FutureGen's developers, including a consortium of big energy and utility companies, had picked Mattoon in east-central Illinois as FutureGen's would-be site.

Shoemaker says revelation of the math error proves Durbin's suspicions that the Energy Department's logic and math both were wrong.

FutureGen would burn coal for power but store emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide underground.

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 11, 2009

Champaign’s 1st African-American Police Officer to Receive Honorary Street Name

Champaign's first African-American police officer is being remembered, 20 years after his death. The Champaign City Council gave its preliminary approval last night for an honorary street designation for Allen Rivers Senior. Honorary street signs for Rivers will be installed along three blocks of Park Street on the east end of Champaign. It's the street Rivers lived on for many years.

Rivers joined the Champaign Police Department in 1935, retiring as a sergeant in 1960. His daughter-in-law Eunice Rivers says being the first black member of the force wasn't easy. But she says Al Rivers, Senior earned the respect of his peers.

"For years he worked downtown here on the downtown beat", Rivers told council members. "Directing traffic and writing tickets, that's what he did for years. And then he worked his way up to sergeant. He was just well liked by everybody. All the police officers liked him."

One of those officers was a young Jerry Schweighart, who once lived down the street from Rivers. Mayor Schweighart says he remembers Rivers as a good honorable man.

Councilwoman Gina Jackson sponsored the honorary street designation for Rivers. She says he's one of many notable African-Americans in Champaign worthy of some sort of memorial.

City Council members will take a final vote on the honorary street for Allen at an upcoming meeting.

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