Illinois Public Media News
The former head of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District has been indicted on theft and official misconduct charges.
A Champaign County jury returned the seven-count felony indictment against 53-year-old Vito Palazzolo last week. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. It wasn't immediately clear whether he's been taken into custody.
Palazzolo is accused of using a health district credit card for personal use, including to buy a pickup truck and big-screen TVs.
The indictment includes charges of theft of governmental property, official misconduct and misapplication of funds. He was with the health district for 17 months until he was fired in August 2007.
No published telephone listing for Palazzolo could be located on Saturday.
Members of the union representing graduate employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus have overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote. The Graduate Employees Organization says 92 percent of members voting last week approved the question.
Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Peter Campbell says a strike committee held its first meeting Sunday, and is making plans for a potential walkout by graduate and teaching assistants. However, Campbell says they want to get back to the bargaining table quickly. While the next tentative date for a meeting between GEO and university negotiators is November 17th. Campbell says the union is asking the administration to meet with them as often as possible before then, in the hopes of making progress towards a new contract before any walkout is held.
"The GEO continues to remain committed to negotiating in good faith in the bargaining room", says Campbell. "But GEO members have authorized and are ready to call a strike at any moment.
Grad student employees have been working at the U of I Urbana campus without a contract all this semester. Campbell says their two top concerns in current contract talks are a living wage for all union members and protection for tuition waivers.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said Sunday night that while the administration recognizes the union's right to strike, it does not feel a strike would be in the union's or the university's best interests.
The State of Illinois plans to start its early release of inmates Tuesday. It's part of an effort to save money in the prison system. The move comes about four months after the state first announced the plan. As many as one thousand prisoners could eventually be let go before their sentences are complete.
Sixty two prisoners will be freed in this first group. Corrections spokeswoman Januari Smith says most of them currently live at the department's adult transition centers, "basically meaning that these are people who are already living and working in the community."
Smith says inmates housed in transition centers work or go to school in the day, but must return to the dorm-like facility at night.
Illinois has eight of them ... one each in Carbondale, Decatur and Peoria. The rest are in and around Chicago. Smith couldn't say from which of these the inmates will be released, but she expects it will be spread out over several locations.
Nor could Smith say where the newly-freed prisoners will go to. But she says local authorities have been notified.
Smith says the Department of Corrections is continuing evaluations to choose other eligible inmates. The department must deem them non-violent and low-level offenders, and they must have less than a year of their sentence left to serve.
Former Iroquois County Clerk Mark Henrichs has been sentenced to 60 days' jail time and 30 months probation for what's been described as a trailer swap scheme. Henrichs was removed from the clerk's post in September, upon his conviction on two counts of theft, two counts of forgery, and four counts of official misconduct for defrauding Iroquois County taxpayers out of $17,500. He also has to pay that amount in restitution. Investigators say the 53-year old Henrichs sold a trailer to the county for use as a polling place without disclosing that he owned it, and then used that money to buy a newer trailer for his family - while also paying off credit card debt.
A $123,454,993 county budget plan for the fiscal year starting December 1st passed through the Champaign County Board's Finance Committee Thursday night --- and comes up for a full county board vote November 19th.
The budget cuts spending from the county's General Corporate Fund by 7-point-2 percent from original 2009 budget plan. Unlike the 4-point-5 percent cuts made partway through FY 2009, these new cuts are targeted and permanent. County Adminstrator Deb Busey says they initially planned for cuts of 6 percent --- but had to go back and cut more as sales and income tax revenue continued to decline.
"We had to cut everything we could from Commodities, Services and Capital at that point", says Busey. "So we went back and focused on recently added positions, or offices where staffing levels are high than in offices in comparable counties. And we added additional personnel cuts to achieve the total 7.2% cut in General Corporate."
Busey says the cuts assume that county tax revenue has bottomed out, and won't fall any further in 2010. Meanwhile, the new budget plan raises spending by nearly ten million dollars at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, which handles everything from long-range urban planning to Head Start programs. Busey says the increase is due to new federal grants --- much of it courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. "The growth in the entire budget is almost entirely attributable to the Regional Planning Commission", says Busey.
The Finance Committee also approved a county property tax levy of $26,601,528 --- an increase of roughly 600-thousand dollars from the year before. Busey says that levy will produce an estimated property tax rate of 73.64 cents per $100 assessed valuation, down from the previous tax rate of 74.26 cents.
A shelter for women escaping domestic violence says slow state funding may force it to close before long.
The human resources manager of A Woman's Place in Urbana says there's no set date at which the shelter would need to close without funding. But Tara Bossert says she's had to lay off about a dozen employees. Services have been curtailed to little more than emergency housing for victims and their children as well as a 24 hour hotline, and the shelter may not meet payroll for a second straight pay period.
Bossert says the facility is getting little from the state Department of Human Services, other than sympathy.
"We talked to the comptroller's office because they ultimately release the payment to us, and they've basically given us the same answer -- they understand our situation, they sympathize. But they can't expedite anything because they don't have any money to release," Bossert said.
Carol Knowles is with the state comptroller's office, which funnels state money to A Woman's Place and other agencies. She says a lack of revenue is causing fund emergencies for many agencies, and it's hard to tell when payments will catch up.
Bossert says state officials have told her that A Woman's Place is near the top of the priority list for funding when it becomes available. In the meantime, she says volunteers have stepped up to help, but many of the services require specially-trained people.
A former handyman convicted of killing seven people at a suburban Chicago fast food restaurant has been sentenced to life in prison.
37-year-old James Degorski was sentenced Wednesday during an appearance before Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan.
A jury convicted Degorski last month of shooting and stabbing seven people at the Brown's Chicken and Pasta Restaurant in Palatine in 1993.
The same jury recommended that Degorski be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Ten jurors had wanted to sentence him to death, but two refused. A death penalty verdict must be unanimous.
Degorski's high school friend and co-defendant, Juan Luna, was convicted in 2007. He's serving a life sentence at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill.
A judge has issued a temporary restraining order delaying enforcement of a law requiring doctors to notify parents of teens seeking an abortion.
The order issued Wednesday was sought by the American Civil Liberties Union. It is to remain in effect until the judge can hear arguments on the group's opposition.
It came just hours after the state's Medical Disciplinary Board voted not to extend a 90-day grace period put into place in August.
The law requires doctors to notify the parents or guardians of girls 17 or younger 48 hours before a teens gets an abortion. There are provisions that allow girls to bypass parental notification.
Illinois' law was passed in 1995 but never enforced because of various court actions.
Negotiators for the University of Illinois and the union for Urbana campus graduate student workers have met three times this week. Now, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, is holding a strike authorization vote.
The vote began at a membership meeting Wednesday night, and continues through Friday. GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says even if their members vote to authorize a strike, they'd like to avoid a walkout. He says the potential for a strike is having an effect on its own.
"It seems apparent that the pressure being exerted by moving up toward a strike and increasing the possibility of a strike, that that is having a positive effect on negotiations", says Campbell. "So I would say they're going better, but there's still a very long way to go."
Campbell says the U of I administration made a new comprehensive contract offer at yesterday's federally mediated bargaining session --- but he says GEO members overwhelmingly rejected it at last night's meeting. The union is seeking better wages, health care and child care, while the administration has cited tight finances.
Campbell says results of the strike authorization vote should be ready by Monday, or perhaps over the weekend. If the strike authorization is approved, a GEO strike committee would decide whether to call a strike. Campbell says a strike would NOT interfere with contract talks.
The Champaign school Consent Decree is now history. A federal judge in Peoria Wednesday accepted a settlement agreement between the Unit Four school district and the plaintiffs in the racial equity case, and formally terminated the decree --- ending seven years of court supervision.
In his Opinion and Order, Judge Joe Billy McDade wrote that the Unit Four school district and the plaintiffs had worked to produce "seven years of transformative progress toward a race-neutral educational environment that is most likely to continue after the Consent Decree ends". Unit Four spokeswoman Beth Shepperd says they look forward to more progress toward racial equity.
Yes, the Consent Decree is over", says Shepperd. "But we have learned so much and gained so many tools to make student successful, that we feel that we are at the beginning of just incredibly great things for our schools."
The attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, Carol Ashley, says while they wish more progress had been made already, the Champaign school district has come a long way in its understanding of the needs of African-American students.
"The settlement and the lawsuit came because the (school) board had turned a deaf ear for many years about minority complaints", says Ashley. "So, when you look at the state of affairs, you can say, at least there's progress in the administration's understanding of issues."
Ashley says there have been concrete accomplishments as well. She says Unit Four now has more African-American administrators and teachers than it did when the Consent Decree began. She says its methods of assigning students to schools is more fair and equitable. And she cites plans to expand and rebuild two schools in predominantly black neighborhoods as part of the gains made under the Consent Decree.
With the Consent Decree now lifted, the Unit Four district stands to save somewhere around 2 million dollars as year in legal and consulting fees it had paid to support the court supervision.
And as part of its settlement agreement with the plaintiffs, the Unit Four school district is creating an Education Equity Excellence Committee --- to advise the district on racial equity issues now that the Consent Decree has been lifted. Unit Four's Beth Shepperd says they received 27 applications from community members to serve on the panel, and Superintendent Arthur Culver will make his recommendations from that list later this month.
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