Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 08, 2010

Prosecution Testimony Continues in Blagojevich Trial, Could Wrap Up on Tuesday

Federal prosecutors say the corruption trial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is moving forward faster than expected and there is a good chance they will rest their case on Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar made the announcement in court Thursday after Judge James Zagel sent the jury home for the weekend.

Blagojevich's attorneys asked if they could be given more time to prepare given that the prosecution finished sooner than expected. Zagel said he wasn't inclined to grant that but would entertain the idea next week. He said at the earliest they would launch their case on Wednesday.

Earlier during trial proceedings on Thursday, jurors heard an FBI wiretap tape in which Rod Blagojevich told a political pollster on an FBI wiretap tape that naming U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate seat Barack Obama was leaving would yield "tangible political support.'' Blagojevich referred to "specific amounts and everything,'' and adds "there is some of it up front.''

Jackson has been accused of no wrongdoing in the case. But prosecutors say there is evidence that his supporters spoke about raising a large sum for Blagojevich if he would name the congressman to the Senate.

Also on a wiretap tape, Blagojevich was heard cursing everyone from the president to reporters. The target of his fury was the people of Illinois.

In a phone conversation with an aide, Blagojevich talked about legislative successes. Later he cited poll numbers that show his support at all-time lows.

Sounding increasingly angry, he directed his ire at his constituents, saying that, "Only 13 percent of you all think I'm doing a good job.'' He then cursed as he denounces the public as a whole.

Also on Thursday, former Deputy Governor Robert Greenlee testified that Blagojevich hid in the bathroom or left the office early to avoid discussing complex issues.

Greenlee testified that former key aide John Filan had to chase Blagojevich to discuss important state matters.

Greenlee testified that he had to dine with the Blagojevich family at a bowling alley to get the governor to focus on legislation.

He said he was skeptical when Blagojevich spoke of his hopes of getting a job in Washington but kept quiet because Blagojevich could be argumentative if he didn't like what he heard.

Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to charges including scheming to exchange President Barack Obama's former Senate seat for a high paying job, Cabinet post or massive campaign contribution.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 08, 2010

Provena Pays More Than $8 Million in Property Tax Funds, But Protests Five Years’ Worth

Property tax money owed by Provena Covenant Medical Center is now in the hands of Champaign County.

County Treasurer Dan Welch received the $8-point-8 million check Thursday morning. An appellate court last week sided with taxing bodies, meaning the hospital owes the funds for tax years 2002 thru 2008. But Welch notes Provena is still fighting the court's decision regarding 2004 onwards. In October, an administrative law judge will determine whether about $6-point-6 million can be released to taxing bodies. But Provena could still take the decision to appellate court.

Welch says that means taxing bodies will likely want to hold off on using that $6-point-6 millon, but they could use just over $2 million from years the hospital is not contesting for taxing bodies like Urbana's school District and Champaign County. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says those funds would come out of the city's tax increment financing district, which would first receive that money. "Smaller units really do need the money," said Prussing. "I don't think it would be right for the city to try to glom onto it. These are people that we work with continuously, so I think the fair thing to do is just give the money back as quickly as we can. And we have our legal council looking into exactly what is the proper way to do this." Prussing says it's 'unfortunate' that Provena is dragging this case out.

Meanwhile, Provena is planning to file for an exemption on its 2010 taxes. Spokeswoman Lisa Lagger issued a statement... noting the hospital provided over $25 million in charitable care in the Champaign Urbana area in the past year, saying those amounts 'clearly represent the value of charitable assets being returned to the community.

Categories: Government, Health, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 07, 2010

Sheriff’s Candidate Smith Drops Bid to Get on Ballot, May Still Run as Write-in

Independent sheriff's candidate Jerommie Smith of Sidney says he's dropping his bid to get on the November ballot in Champaign County.

Smith's petition signatures have been under review by the Champaign County Election Board, after a challenge was filed. He says they had reached a point where he was 25 to 35 signatures under the 42-hundred-and-8 needed to make the November ballot. And Smith says he didn't think a continued review of his petitions would find enough signatures to meet the threshold.

The 38-year-old Smith says he's disappointed, but hasn't given up yet.

"There's other avenues where we can continue to go", says Smith. "(The ballot petitions) show there was that many people who wanted to see a choice, and I'm glad I was able to present that to them. And now we're going to look at other options. One may be running as a write-in."

Smith has said previously he would run a write-in campaign if he couldn't get on the ballot. He says he'll make the final decision this weekend. Smith is challenging the incumbent sheriff, Republican Dan Walsh. Smith is a former sheriff's deputy, who now operates the Truly Fit gym in Urbana.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 07, 2010

Eagle Creek Resort in New Hands, but Hotel Opening is Still Far Away

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 07, 2010

Vermilion County’s New Public Health Administrator Reacts to Budget Constraints

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.

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Categories: Economics, Health

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 07, 2010

Property Tax on November Ballot in Champaign County

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 07, 2010

Residents Concerned About Proposed Coal Mine Set Public Meeting for Thursday

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.

Categories: Energy, Environment

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 06, 2010

Clerks to Implement Controversial New Law Aimed at Spurring Young Voters

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.

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 06, 2010

Champaign County Cancels Grand Juries to Cut Costs

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.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 02, 2010

Some Alarmed, Others Relieved by State Budget Cuts

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.


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