Illinois Public Media News
The last event in the city of Champaign's 150th anniversary celebration is an open family-oriented party Thursday night.
The city is using the brand-new Boneyard Second Street Basin development as the backdrop for what it calls a Unity Celebration. The first one-thousand attendees will be treated to free food, and there will be music, entertainment and games.
LaEisha Meadards is heading up the sesquicentennial events for the city. She says another highlight will require the help of as many Champaign residents as possible. "All of the visitors who come to the Unity Celebration will get together and take a community-wide photo," Meadards said. "It will be used as a commemorative item for city-related documents, and it will be on sale for the community at large."
During a dedication ceremony at 5:40, the city will also place a time capsule at the Boneyard commemorating a series of 150th-anniversary events that began more than a year ago. The Unity Celebration takes place tomorrow evening from 5:30 to 8:30 with the community photo at 6:10.
State construction projects will go on without further trepidation. Senators approved funding for them Wednesday, and at the same time knocked down their own pay a bit as they returned to the Capitol for the first time since the end of the regular session.
The threat had been looming that roadwork and all other ongoing infrastructure projects would need to shut down, including the project to rebuild Lincoln Hall on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus. The legislature adjourned in May without voting to pay for them.
Senate Democrats had tried holding back the $18 billion as a way to pressure the House to approve more money for education and human services, but they ultimately backed down from those demands. Governor Pat Quinn says that ensures thousands of construction workers will keep their jobs.
But Democratic Senate President John Cullerton says concerns remain with the budget, which is on Quinn's desk. "We will take up the shortcomings of the House budget that we did pass, when we come back perhaps in the fall, most likely in January," Cullerton said.
It's relatively insignificant, but about $500,000 will be saved via another measure headed to Quinn. It freezes elected officials' pay and requires they take 12 furlough days. Legislators' base salary will be about $65,000, though some earn more for extra duties.
State Representative Chapin Rose is launching his campaign for the Illinois Senate. The Mahomet Republican has been making campaign visits to towns in the new 51st Senate District. And on Wednesday morning, he stopped in St. Joseph.
The new 51st Senate District is spread out over 10 counties in east-central Illinois, carefully avoiding any large cities, which are given over to neighboring districts favoring Democrats. The 37-year-old Rose says he'd be happy representing a Senate District made up of rural areas and small towns.
"I mean I like that", says Rose. "You get a chance to come out to the coffee shop and say hi to people. You know, when you get into a large urban area, nobody knows anybody. I'm a small town guy."
To announce his Senate bid in the small Champaign County town of St. Joseph, Rose brought his family over for a news conference at BJ's Beauty Shop, whose owner, BJ Hackler, is the mayor and past president of the Illinois Municipal League. Although St. Joseph isn't in Rose's House district, Hackler says they know each other well, "because I've worked with him throughout his career". Hackler adds, "And he's (Rose) always been very good to me, as far as my community, and within the state of Illinois, with the Municipal League."
Other local Republicans who came to BJ's Beauty Shop to endorse Rose included Ogden Mayor Jack Reidner, Tolono Township Trustee Larry Kearns and Parkland College Trustee (and former Champaign County Board member) Greg Knott.
During his five terms in the Illinois House, Rose's specialties have included budget issues and higher education. Rose says that as a state Senator, he can have a greater impact on shaping Illinois' budget, at time when Democrats in the General Assembly seem more willing to listen to the Republican minority.
"I'm on our (Republican) budget team", says Rose. "And for the first time in a long time, I felt like this year's budget process was a fair one, where people worked together, where we're starting to right the ship. I understand that's a start --- we've got a long way to go. I want to see that through ... and I think that in the Senate, we'll have more impact and more effectiveness in that area."
Rose says the new 51st Senate District overlaps with the 110th House District he currently represents. But the new district doesn't include Coles County, where Rose grew up.
A bill legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons could pass the Wisconsin Legislature as early as today.
The state Assembly is scheduled to take up the bill. It has already passed the Senate and Gov. Scott Walker has said he will sign it into law.
The bill would allow carrying concealed weapons in public places, with some exemptions. Signs could also be posted giving notice that concealed weapons aren't allowed.
Guns would be specifically banned in police stations, jails, courthouses, government buildings that screen for weapons and beyond airport security checkpoints. The bill keeps the current ban on guns in schools in place.
Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states that currently don't allow carrying concealed weapons.
The next fiscal budget for the city of Champaign will include two percent raises for non-union employees.
Those staff members didn't get raises in the current fiscal year. The city council quickly signed off on the budget plan Tuesday night.
Raises for Champaign's union workers, such as those with AFSCME, are unclear since they are in contract negotiations. And the city's firefighters union is waiting on a decision from an arbitrator. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said it is difficult to gauge what impact the non-bargaining staff raises will have, but he said each citywide salary increase of one percent is worth about $400,000 in personnel costs.
Schnuer said some unanticipated increases, like the cost of snow removal, were factored into the budget.
"As the year progressed, and the negotiations progressed, we realized that we were going to have increases," he said. "So the adopted budget does reflect the increases that were agreed to by the council and unions."
The city council's earlier action to restore three positions at the police department is included in the budget, but two of those positions are currently vacant. Next month, the council is expected to discuss the future of those jobs, along with potential new sources of revenue.
Cutting those positions would mean shutting down the police front desk during overnight hours.
Members of a health care advocacy group are urging Congress to avoid touching Social Security as a bipartisan panel looks to reduce the national deficit.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers has sent a letter to Senator Dick Durbin, speculating that his 'Gang of Six' is still looking at cuts to Social Security. The group's Medicare Task Force says a myth is being spread on Capitol Hill that the program adds to the deficit. Thomas Rohrer is a member of the group's Medicare Task Force. He said he is concerned about any efforts to privatize Social Security.
"The stock market crashed a couple years ago, and people lost a lot of money," Rorher said. "And if social security people lose their benefits - where would they go? What would happen? At least the government provides a safety net."
The consumers' group also opposes any talk of raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. Rohrer said he has friends who simply can't stay in their current jobs until that age, and worries about age discrimination for anyone trying to find new work.
The Health Care Consumers' Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff criticized AARP, noting that the agency is willing to consider raising the retirement age. She said it is 'selling out its constituents' as a result.
"They talk out of both sides of their mouth, saying that they want to protect social security and that making cuts to social security benefits and raising the retirement age is a cut - is important for saving social security," Lenhoff said. "They say that everybody recognizes that social security retirement age must be raised. Really? Everybody?"
Lenhoff noted that the federal government has borrowed $2.6 trillion from the Social Security Reserve Fund.
Even though small towns may not have big crime problems compared to larger areas, they still need law enforcement. As part of the series "Life on Route 150," Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers visited one town that's keeping its local police presence intact despite the state's economic challenges, and another town that recently dismantled its police force to save money.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
The decision by the mayor of Urbana to veto city funding for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau will only hurt the city in the long run, according to the group's president Jayne DeLuce.
Mayor Laurel Prussing said the agency has not been effective, and that the nearly $72,000 in the budget for the CVB could be used to help fill two police vacancies instead.
But DeLuce said cutting funding will limit the CVB's ability to promote events like the Illinois Marathon and state high school athletic tournaments, and facilities like hotels and convention spaces. She said she will attend an Urbana City Council committee meeting on July 11th to defend her agency's work.
"We're not looking back in five years and saying, 'Wow, how come we don't have that event here anymore? How come nothing new has happened anymore? Why are our tax revenues staying plateaued or not increasing?' And when you decrease local funding, that's what happens," DeLuce said.
But right now, Prussing said she does not believe the CVB's claim that it has generated 7.2% of hotel room nights in Urbana, for an economic impact of over $3.1 million, according to a formula used by the state Office of Tourism.
"I think most of the tourists that come to Urbana and Champaign come here because of the University of Illinois," Prussing said. "I don't think that the tourism bureau has much of an impact. They can't measure their impact. No business in Urbana has told me they have an impact on that business."
A statement from DeLuce said one Urbana businessman --- Adam Friederich of the Comfort Suites Hotel --- credits the Convention and Visitors Bureau for nearly 10% of their budget revenues so far this year.
But Prussing said the city needs the money budgeted for the CVB to help close a nearly $1 million budget gap --- one that may get wider, once a new police contract is settled through binding arbitration.
Prussing said the idea for cutting CVB funding to help address the budget shortfall came from Alderman Charlie Smyth.
Smyth said he brought up the proposal last month, to contrast it with proposed cuts to social service funding --- something he said is an easy target because the people served by such funding do not have the political voice of local business interests. But Smyth said he has not reached a final decision yet.
State employees in Illinois have settled into their health insurance choices - at least for the next three months.
But a University of Illinois professor says the controversy over the state's attempt to change providers will only resurface as September 17th nears.
Law professor Richard Kaplan said the resolution that let people keep their existing Health Alliance arrangements is only a temporary fix while the courts, the Quinn administration and the state legislature play what he calls a three-level game of chess.
Kaplan said the thousands of state workers and retirees will need to pay special attention to the wrangling in Springfield before the emergency contracts expire.
"There are several parallel tracks that (Judge Brian Otwell's) opinion might get overturned, the governor might sign the two-year keep everything as it is legislation, the contracts may be completely re-negotiated," Kaplan said. "This is very unsettling because this is not some trivial fringe benefit. This is a huge part of people's compensation and it's probably one of the most intimate aspects of their employment."
Kaplan said if Governor Pat Quinn decides to veto legislation to keep the current health insurance contracts for two more years, that could set up a game of chicken where lawmakers could override the veto and nullify the new contracts.
Kaplan said many other large employers will be reconsidering their health insurance options in the months ahead in response to last year's federal health care overhaul.
In the final hours before the Monday midnight deadline to change health insurance plans, the University of Illinois says calls with questions went down considerably.
University-wide statistics provided by the Office of Human Resources on the Urbana campus show the most on-line transactions took place Thursday, when about 5,000 people opted for a change.
In contrast, the office's Katie Ross said there were 300 transactions total over the weekend. She said phone calls to her office were getting simpler Monday afternoon.
"Calls that we're seeing now are basically from employees that just want to confirm that the last change they made in the system is indeed reflected in our system," Ross said. "Our counselors are able to look up that information very quickly, and confirm that we do have the correct choice."
Ross said if a U of I employee recently indicated they want to add a dependent while enrolling, they have a few days to file the proper documentation, like a birth certificate.
Ninety day extensions of current contracts were granted last week for most providers, including Health Alliance. Health Alliance spokeswoman Jane Hayes said her office has gotten a lot of calls over the weekend and Monday expressing interest in sticking with or switching over to Health Alliance.
It is unclear what happens when the emergency health plans expire, but Hayes said she is encouraged by a Sangamon County Judge's ruling earlier this month stalling the use of self-insurance open access plans.
"Having heard him read in his order that he believes Health Alliance has a good chance of winning the merits of the case, we feel fairly confident that we will win out, and hopefully have a longer-term contract," Hayes said.
Ross said last week that about half the Urbana campus opted for a different health insurance contract. These statistics provided by her office show the number of appliants by day on a university-wide basis over the past week.
Monday 6/13 - About 1,100 transactions Tuesday 6/14 - About 800 transactions Wednesday 6/15 - About 3,000 transactions Thursday 6/16 - About 5,000 transactions Friday 6/17 - About 800 transactions Saturday & Sunday 6/18 & 6/19 - About 300 transactions total over the weekend
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