Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that Urbana's Provena Covenant Medical Center will have to pay property taxes to Champaign County dating back to 2002.
Justices determined Thursday that the hospital did not provide enough charity care to qualify for its tax exemption, upholding an appellate court ruling. That amount in taxes is expected to be around $8 million.
The Champaign County Board of Review initially recommended to the Illinois Department of Revenue that the hospital be denied the exemption. Chair Laura Standefur says after reviewing financial statements that her board found a few reasons for turning the hospital down, but it started with the amount of charity care. Sandefur says it's hard to define, but the board knows when it's not at the appropriate level.
"Charity, I think, is kind of that same way," Sandefur said. "Less than one percent, is that exclusive use? What defines exclusive or even majority use? None of us on the board could really look at those numbers and think that that was used exclusively for charitable purposes."
Champaign County treasurer Dan Welch says it's still not clear how the roughly $8 million in property taxes should be collected. He says the majority of the funds would be earmarked for Urbana's Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, district. But he says Urbana city leaders may be able to change how those funds are divided. Mayor Laurel Prussing has already suggested breaking down those funds among taxing bodies, including more than $4 million for schools, $1.2 million for the city, and $720,000 for Champaign County.
Provena officials released a written statement on the Supreme Court decision. Local Hospital Board Chairman Cody Sokolski says he's deeply disappointed in the ruling, noting that the hospital provided more than $38 million in free care and other community benefits in 2008. Provena Covenant CEO David Bertauski says he hopes the ruling prompts a dialogue among elected officials and hospitals over how charity care should be defined.
Six years ago Provena's tax exempt status for 2002 was revoked after the state department of revenue sided with Champaign County officials. A circuit court judge overturned the ruling, but an appeals court later reversed it again in the state and county's favor. In the meantime, Provena has been putting contested tax money - more than a million dollars a year -- into a fund that remained tied up pending the Supreme Court ruling.
As unemployment climbs and economic hard times worsen for many in Champaign County, area churches are finding it difficult to keep up with the need. Shelley Smithson reports as part of a joint project confronting poverty in the area.
University of Illinois trustees will continue to be appointed by the governor, rather than elected. The Illinois House voted down an effort to change how U of I board members are chosen.
The calls to return to an elected U of I board of trustees grew louder following a scandal last year over the role clout played in admissions at the Urbana Champaign campus. Seven members resigned under pressure and Governor Pat Quinn chose replacements.
The bill before the Illinois House on Wednesday would have seven U of I trustees elected by the voters --- three of the seats would be reserved for residents of Illinois' First Judicial District, which covers Cook County. In addition, six other trustee seats would be appointed by the U of I Alumni Association. And faculty trustees would be added to the student trustees who already serve on the board. The governor would continue to have a tie-breaking seat on the U of I Board, but would no longer appoint any of its members.
State Representative Chapin Rose (R-Mahomet)... a U of I alum... was among those who say electing trustees would guarantee accountability.
"If the body wants to condone what took place at the University of Illinois, by all means vote no", Rose told his fellow lawmakers.
The plan was defeated, with 44 yeas, 69 yays and one member voting present. House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) voted against the measure, while Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Plainfield) voted for it..
Skokie Representative Lou Lang (D-Skokie)...who also graduated from the U of I ... says he voted against it because it leaves out other universities. He adds it's too soon to tell how the current board is doing....
"Because it singles out one single university", says Lang, "a university where it has new trustees and we don't know how well they'll perform, I think the bill is ill advised."
Other lawmakers argued the public would wind up voting for trustees with little knowledge of the candidates.
The measure was sponsored by Olney Republican --- and U of I alum --- David Reis. Its co-sponsors were all Republicans from the east-central Illinois region where the university is based --- Rose, Bill Black, Shane Cultra and Bill Mitchell. Area Democrats Naomi Jakobsson and Robert Flider also voted for the bill.
In a reversal of a previous "no" vote, the Champaign City Council has voted to 6-2 to accept its share of a federal grant aimed at curbing underage drinking in Champaign-Urbana.
Urbana and the University of Illinois are also involved in the grant, but the Champaign City Council last month rejected its portion, 11-thousand dollars a year for three years, to fund police efforts to curb underage drinking.
But after the director of the Mental Health Center of Champaign County made a personal plea, enough council members changed their minds Tuesday night to turn last month's "no" vote into a "yes" .
Marci Dodds was among those who switched, even though she thinks the city doesn't need the money, and believes it would be better to combat problem drinking at any age, rather than all drinking by minors.
"In understanding the ramifications of what this means to the Mental Health Center at large, I will vote for it," said Dodds, "because I greatly support what the Mental Health Center does. But I am not thrilled with the plan."
The $360,000 3-year grant will also fund education programs aimed at preventing underage drinking, under the sponsorship of the Mental Health Center. City Manager Steve Carter says the grant is aimed at both policing and prevention --- and if Champaign rejected its portion, it could endanger the entire program.
Every spring, school boards in Illinois announce tentative layoffs, known as RIFs or 'reduction in force' notices. The majority of those receiving RIF notices are usually hired back by the next school year. But that may not be the case with the Urbana school district.
The Urbana School Board voted last Tuesday night to give RIF notices to 139 employees - both teachers and other staff. That's almost 3 times as many RIF notices as were given last year. And they include some of the 20 positions that were eliminated by the Board as part of budget cuts approved Sunday evening.
More than half of those getting RIF notices are usually hired back, once grant funds are received and the state budget is finalized. But Urbana school officials say it's not clear how many of the teachers and staff receiving RIFs will be hired back. And School Board President John Dimit said these RIF notices do not take into account the budget cuts proposed by Governor Quinn in recent weeks.
"Quite honestly, the budget as presented by the Governor would have made those cuts deeper, way deeper," Dimit said.
Dimit says they've been warned to expect the state's budget problems to extend for several years. In fact, the Urbana School Board will start looking ahead to the 2011-2012 school budget after next week's spring break. Looking this far ahead isn't typical. But Dimit says there are certain decisions the Urbana Board will need to make that will require advance planning.
The staff affected by the RIFs will be notified today Wednesday.
Champaign-Urbana's Big Broadband proposal cleared a major hurdle last Tuesday night. The Champaign City Council voted 7-1 to accept a federal grant to help create a new high-speed fiber broadband system --- despite worries about possible future costs.
Champaign is saying yes to a $22 million federal grant plus $3.5 million in state funding to pay for the core infrastructure of the broadband system, plus fiber-to-the-home broadband installations in underserved neighborhoods. Councilman Tom Bruno says the system will give Champaign-Urbana a competitive edge with businesses for the next few years.
"We will have better connectivity than other similar communities," Bruno said. "When somebody trying to decide where to invest, or where to bring the jobs, will like Champaign-Urbana a little bit more than some other city, we will be a little bit ahead of the curve."
But accepting the broadband grant also commits Champaign to spending $688,000 of its own money. Along with Urbana and the U of I, Champaign will become a retail broadband provider, a risk that worries Mayor Jerry Schweighart, who cast the only vote against the project.
"I see a lot of pitfalls on this, and it's going to cost the cities a lot of money at a time when we don't have a lot of money," Schweighatr told council members. "I hope I'm wrong, hope it's highly successful. But I cannot, after reading everything, convince myself to support it."
The Urbana City Council takes its own vote on the Big Broadband project next week.
The Illinois Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling Thursday in a taxation case that could affect dozens of not-for-profit hospitals in Illinois.
The case involves Provena Covenant Medical Center in Urbana. In 2004 it lost its property tax exempt status because county officials determined the hospital did not provide enough charitable care. State revenue officials agreed, but an appeals court reversed the lower court's decision against Provena. At issue is whether Provena still owes local governments more than a million dollars in property taxes a year since the initial decision. The case is on the high court's list of decisions to be released Thursday - both sides argued before the justices last September.
After a hiatus since the new year, Illinois is once again requiring those who lobby Illinois government to sign in with the Secretary of State. As of Monday, lobbyists can once again register.
Illinois was set to charge lobbyists one thousand dollars each beginning in 2010, nearly triple what most had been paying. But the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit alleging that was too high a price to put on speaking to elected officials. A judge agreed that the registration price should be tied to the cost of lobbyist regulation and threw out the law. But that left Illinois without a registration program until now.
The Secretary of State's office has told lobbyists they must register, but the office will not collect a fee at this time. Cindi Canary with the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform says it's the right move.
"We all know that Illinois is just in an absolutely dire budget situation," said Canary. "So people are competing very fiercely for very limited dollars, and the public has a right to know who's trying to influence their government."
Lobbyists have until the end of this month to register. Once lawmakers set a new fee, lobbyists must pay it or their registration will be terminated.
Some 300 people gathered at a public forum in Champaign Monday night to discuss ways to improve relations between police and the African-American community. The meeting was organized in the wake of October's police shooting of 15 year old Kiwane Carrington. The need for better communications and mutual respect were common themes in the discussions.
City Manager Steve Carter says a report summarizing the comments and findings from last night's forum should be ready in a week to ten days. It will be sent to forum participants and posted on the Champaign city website.
With just an hour to discuss longstanding obstacles, there wasn't much time at the forum to get into details. Still, 16-year-old Lavon Miller says he learned a lot from the Champaign police officer who was part of his group.
In Miller's view, the police handle their patrols of white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods differently. The 16-year-old notice how officers "patrol different, they wave their hands in the Devonshire, Cherry Hills area, Centennial area. They wave their hands to the people standing. And they wouldn't really say nothing to the people in the north end, they'd be just really rude to the people that come into."
Miller says the officer at his table said the residents of predominantly black neighborhoods who call for police help want to see a change, so they come in more forcefully.
At another table, police Sergeant Robert Rea aaid he hadn't realized some of the perceptions that people have of his work. He says he doesn't treat African-Americans differently from whites, but he understands opinions can differ.
"Two people can see the exact same thing from totally two different perspectives", says Rey, "and they can both be right. So I think that's one of the things we need to talk about and figure out why people are perceiving things that way."
Champaign Police Chief RT Finney says that with so many people from different backgrounds talking together, he expects to obtain ideas from the forum that will help improve policing and police-community relations in the city
City Manager Steve Carter says a report summarizing the comments and findings from the forum should be ready in a week to ten days. It will be sent to forum participants and posted on the Champaign city website.
A lawsuit that complained that thousands of mentally Ill people in Illinois are being treated unfairly is about to be settled.
The settlement orders the state to transfer 256 people from larger institutions to smaller homes or apartments over the next year, with nearly 400 more transferred next year. Over the next five years the agreement between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union would affect about 4500 mentally ill Illinoisans.
Diane Zell heads the Champaign chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says too many people left institutions only to be warehoused in nursing homes not designed to care for them. She fears that the state's economic situation may not mean a smooth transition for many of those people.
"Most poeple who have serious mental illness have not completed their education, and they may not be employed, at least not employed to the extent where they have health insurance," said Zell. "So this is a problem that won't go away."
Nevertheless, advocates of the mentally ill are hailing the agreement as a landmark. The settlement needs a judge's approval and both sides have requested a hearing to consider the specifics of the plan.
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