Illinois Public Media News
A long-troubled resort inside Shelby County's Eagle Creek State Park is now in the hands of a new manager which promises an extensive makeover.
The state-owned hotel, conference center and golf course were closed last summer after years of declining business - mold had crept into the hotel, making it a significant challenge for the next manager. But the winner of the contract, Mike Ballinger of Decatur-based BMDD Resorts, says his firm will invest in Eagle Creek and try to make it profitable.
"It's going to be a 3.8 million dollar project," Ballinger said. "It's going to be more obviously if something unforeseen pops up. There's a mold remediation. The roof needs to be repaired. Drywall needs to be removed in some areas. Major cleaning."
Ballinger says it will take about a year to reopen the conference center, but the golf course could be open as soon as next month.
Ballinger's firm won the contract over four other bidders last winter - one of the losing bidders, nearby marina owner Dennis Fayhee, unsuccessfully challenged the state's decision claiming BMDD had a conflict of interest. Fayhee and his attorney have not been available to say whether they plan to further challenge the contract.
Shirley Hicks recently took over as the Public Health Administrator at the Vermilion County Health Department. Hicks has been with the health department for 25 years, and comes into her new role amid massive program and staff cuts. In the first six months of this year, the department cut more than half of its staff and eliminated eight programs. The state still owes the health department $600,000, which Hicks says could be paid back by December. She estimates that it could be at least a couple of years until her department can start thinking about adding to its services. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke to her at the department's office in Danville.
A referendum on township property taxes in Champaign will go on the ballot this fall --- nine months later than intended.
The Champaign City Council voted Tuesday night to place the advisory referendum on the November ballot. It asks Champaign voters if they want to increase their township property tax to provide more General Assistance for the poor.
Voters at last year's annual town meeting approved the referendum for placement on this year's primary ballot, but it was omitted by mistake.
City of Champaign Township Supervisor Pam Borowski was running for the office she now holds when the referendum was proposed. Borowski said the law requires that the measure get on the ballot this November, even though she said hopes it fails. "There's not a need for additional tax revenues at this point in time, and until there is, I'm going to keep saying that we don't need more new property taxes," she said.
The imitative would raise the township tax rate to match General Assistance funding levels in Urbana and other comparable cities. Champaign voters approved a similar advisory referendum in 2008, but rejected a binding referendum for a township tax hike later that same year.
For the past several weeks, farmers in Champaign and Vermilion County have been talking about an Indiana coal company's interest in opening an underground coal mine under farmland at the Champaign-Vermilion border. Now a group of farmers and others critical of the idea are inviting the public to learn more at a meeting on Thursday night.
Sunrise Coal of Terre Haute is not represented on the list of speakers. That's the company that has been talking with landowners about mineral rights for an area located between Homer and Allerton. Instead, the meeting will feature environmental groups, and others concerned about how the mine would impact the area.
Vermilion County farmer Charles Goodall, one of the meeting organizers, says there are other mines in the area, but this is the first that would go underneath prime farmland. Goodall says Sunrise plans to wash coal on site, and the resulting waste water --- or slurry water --- would carry toxic elements from the coal.
"And the disposal would be either by dumping it in local streams, or by injecting it underground", says Goodall. "In either case, it can have an immediate or long-term impact by decreasing the amount of clean groundwater available to people both in their farms, but also available to villages that have groundwater based systems"
Goodall says he's also s worried that Sunrise coal may use ""longwall" mining techniques to extract the coal. "And that type of mining immediately drops bathtub-shaped ponds at the surface", according to Goodall. "And Illinois does not prohibit long-wall mining. So it's something that has to be included in each lease, as a type of mining not permitted by the lessor, the person who owns the land."
Longwall mining is just one technique that Sunrise Coal could use, if it builds an underground mine at the Champaign-Vermilion site. The coal company has not yet responded to a call for comment.
The public meeting about the proposed mine starts at 7 PM Thursday night at the Immanuel Lutheran Church, north of Broadlands.
Now that a program meant to stimulate more college-age voting has become law, one county clerk who spoke out against the bill has to figure out how to implement it.
Mark Shelden in Champaign County and some other clerks complained that the measure would be a financial hardship on counties. One of three voting bills signed by Governor Quinn over the weekend requires early voting sites to be set up on college campuses before each election.
Shelden says he has yet to choose a location on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus for such a center, but he says it will not be the centrally-located Illini Union, where active campaigh goes on during election season.
"Our polling place where we do early voting cannot be a hub of political speech -- it has to be a campaign free zone," said Shelden. "And so we'll be looking for a location that may be comparable to that in terms of traffic, but where we're able to regulate the speech activities during the 23-day period that we'll be conducting early voting." By law, campaigning is restricted around all polling sites, whether on Election Day or in early voting.
Supporters of the new law say the college early voting center will be available to all voters, not just students - opponents such as Shelden have said the centers would discriminate against voters in outlying areas by giving students easier access.
Budget constraints are forcing officials in Champaign County to end grand juries. The central Illinois county's final grand jury session is scheduled for July 22. The county uses grand juries to decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to take a felony charge case to trial. Grand juries were established in Champaign County during the 1980s.
Champaign County grand jurors serve for four months at a time, usually hearing between five and 16 cases per day. They are paid $10 a day plus mileage. Presiding Judge Tom Difanis says eliminating grand juries should save the county about $4,000 annually.
Officials in schools, universities and social service agencies around the state spent Friday parsing a new state budget signed by Gov. Pat Quinn that cuts $1.4 billion in spending.
Education will lose $241 million. But Illinois Association of School Boards lobbyist Ben Schwarm says schools are relieved general state aid will remain flat. That money makes up most of what public schools have to spend. Steep cuts were feared.
The budget cuts nearly $263 million from state grants for, among other things, programs for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
And many schools and others note they're still waiting on money the state can't afford to pay from the last fiscal year.
Ten members of Champaign County's Olympic tradition will be honored Saturday, July 3rd, at the monument built as a tribute to all area Olympians.
Six of the ten people to be inducted at the Tribute to Olympic Athletes are Paralympians, who compete in their own games that run parallel to the Olympics.
One is University of Illinois administrator Brad Hedrick, who was a member of the bronze-winning men's wheelchair basketball team at the 1980 Paralympics in Arnhem, Holldan, and placed second in the marathon in the 1984 games. Four years later, he coached the US women's basketball team to its first Paralympics gold in South Korea.
Hedrick says athletes with disabilities have had an upward climb to win respect over the decades - in fact, it wasn't until recently that Paralympians were recognized on the Champaign monument despite the area's history of Paralympic training. But he says that discrimination is melting away.
Hedrick says as younger generations grow up and attend both the Olympics and Paralympics, "I think the chasm that some may see as being wide will be narrowing in the eyes of future generations."
Hedrick's 1988 gold-medal team included two women who will also be inducted Saturday -- Terri Goodknight and Barbara Yoss.
Hedrick says he's honored to be in the same list as Jack Whitman -- he was known as the father of wheelchair archery in America when he won gold medals at the 1960 and 1964 Paralympic Games, at a time when athletes with disabilities faced widespread discrimination.
"He had such grace", remembers Hedrick. "And I still say he was the greatest 60-year-old athlete, and I owe him a lot."
The dedication ceremony will also honor two speedskaters from the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, Katherine Reutter and Jonathan Kuck. Also on the list is wrestler Mark Johnson, whose 1980 team never made it to the boycotted Moscow Olympics.
The ceremony begins at 10 AM, Saturday, July 5th, at at the Tribute to Olympic Athletes monument, in Dodds Park in Champaign.
Governor Quinn signed a new state budget for Fiscal Year 2011 this week that cuts spending by $1.4 billion, as the state grapples with the biggest deficit in its history.
The budget includes $69,057,200 for the University of Illinois, which is 6.23% less than what lawmakers put in their version of the budget. Quinn made cuts of similar proportions to allocations for other state universities.
U of I Associate Vice President for Planning and Budgeting Randy Kangas notes that the university has still not received 38% of the state funding it was promised for fiscal year 2010. He says they worry that they might see similar cash-flow problems in the new budget year.
"So appropriation levels are good --- cash is better", says Kangas. "So, we have additional concerns if the state has the capacity to meet the appropriation levels, and that will be a continuing concern."
Kangas says U of I officials have been working for some time on plans for dealing with less state funding.
"The provosts are working very hard", says Kangas. "We have worked through the campus level, and now they will start working through the college and department level allocations."
But he says the plans are still in flux, because of what he calls the state's "unprecedented" financial problems, and the possibility that Governor Quinn may cut even more funding later in the year.
Additional reporting by Amanda Vinicky of Illinois Public Radio
On his first day on the job, new U of I President Michael Hogan admits he needs to be brought up to speed on some issues relating to Illinois' financial crisis.
But the 66-year old notes he's been through similar experiences while leading other universities, and thinks strategically about budgets. Hogan says it's a sad fact that the U of I, like other state schools, have to rely less on state funds - and will have look more at tuition, alumni donations, and research to generate revenue. He plans to spend a third of his time raising money.
But the former president of the University of Connecticut also hopes to avoid a second round of furlough days for university faculty and staff. "So my own disposition would be do try to deal with budget issues in different ways than relying on furloughs," said Hogan. "We can't rule them out right now, and I certainly wouldn't want to say anything definitive until I know more. But in principal, we had furlough days at U-Conn and others, and I know from experience they're very, very hard on faculty and staff morale."
Hogan also expects to get questions about his $620,000 dollar salary. He says it's in line with what other Big Ten Presidents receive... and plans to justify it over the next several months. "I think the question to be asked here is over the next year is 'what have I done to earn that salary," said Hogan. "And if I haven't done enough to earn that salary, I'm sure the board will want some adjustment made. And I intend to earn it. And I intend to bring in the university, one way or the other, a substantial amount more than I'm going to be taking out."
Hogan says he isn't sure yet about job cuts as part of a push to save money. But Former U of I President Stanley Ikenberry - who's leading what he calls a 'process redesign', says other cuts are likely.
Hogan also says he'll be do his best to be accessible. "I think it's a big university, even each part of the university, especially the Chicago campus and the Urbana campus are both by themselves, very large," said Hogan. "I think it helps if people know who the president is. I think by being engaged and being visible and being accessible - even one person, the president, maybe more than others, can help make a big university seem smaller. And that would be my goal." He comes to Illinois after being president of the University of Connecticut.
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