Illinois Public Media News
An advisory referendum to reduce the size of the Champaign County Board will be on the ballot this November. County Board members voted 21 to 4 Thursday night to put the question before the voters.
Few county board members --- even those against shrinking the board's size ---- wanted to be seen as denying voters the chance to weigh in on the matter. One who did vote no was Democrat Alan Kurtz. He says cutting the county board from its current 27 seats down to 22 would hurt the level of diversity among board members.
"I enjoy the diversity on the board", Kurtz told his fellow board members, "the rural representation, the minority representation, the expertise, and experience of our board members, who all bring something to the table."
But others, like Republican Alan Nudo, say a smaller county board would be more accountable, and retaining multi-member districts would help it stay diverse.
"With 27 members, it's a little bit too much", says Nudo. "I think 22 will give it the diversity that we need, that many people want. And I think the biggest issue for me is that compact and contiguous districts will produce the diversity that we want to get."
The proposed county board reduction is a compromise for some members, who wanted an even smaller board, or preferred single-member districts. Democrat Brendan McGinty first proposed the county board reduction, along with Republican Greg Knott. McGinty says the current county board is "dysfunctional", and admits he'd like the reduction to go further.
"I'd love for the board to be much smaller", says McGinty, "but I'm willing to compromise, because this is a good step. It might be baby steps, but this will create, in my opinion, more accountability. This is a good thing to do."
State law says that the county board reduction referendum must be non-binding, and that only a local county board can officially decide how many members it should have.
The rain in recent days has kept many farmers in Central Illinois from wrapping up their planting.
Illinois Farm Bureau spokesman John Hawkins says spring temperatures allowed farmers to get all their corn and some soybeans in, but have been on hold for several days since. And he says much of the corn crop near creeks or in low-lying areas essentially drowned from all the rainfall, and can't be re-planted at this point. Hawkins says Interstates 74 and 72 corridor saw the heaviest rainfall, particularly west of Springfield and Peoria, where it was 4 times above normal.
But he says a dry spell wouldn't be the best solution either. "Should the rains immediately stop, and we go to drier weather, a lot of these crops are going to be impacted by the heat and humidity because the root systems are so shallow," said Hawkins. "So if the ground dries out too quickly, we may have just as many problems as if the rains continue." Hawkins also says the term 'green snap' is a common problem in places that don't see heavy rains, but have wind speeds strong enough to basically break a quick-growing corn stalk right above the ground. "It's where the plant grows so fast, that when a strong wind hits it, it just snaps it off right above the ground." said Hawkins. "That's a total loss for the farmer."
Dick Miller, a farmer in in the Champaign County community of Philo, says his biggest concern is crop disease, since the rain has kept him from spraying his more than 300 acres of soybeans. University of Illinois researchers indicate the number of planting days for the region the past three years has been well below normal.
A former administrator and researcher at Carle Foundation Hospital has settled her lawsuit against the Urbana firm.
Suzanne Stratton was Carle's vice president for research and had worked on breast cancer at the hospital's Cancer Center before she was fired in November of 2008.
Stratton charged that Carle had violated federal whistleblower laws by retaliating against her. Stratton had brought up allegations that Carle violated laws protecting human research subjects in its cancer studies.
Last week a federal judge approved both sides' agreement to settle the lawsuit with prejudice - that means Stratton won't be able to file another case on the same claim.
Carle spokeswoman Jennifer Hendricks Kauffman would not disclose any other terms of the agreement - in the suit, Stratton had sought to be reinstated and receive financial damages. Neither Stratton nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
Information Technology could be the first area at the University of Illinois to see some cost reductions under a 3-year plan to reduce expenses by about $60 million.
Former U of I administrator Craig Bazzani co-chaired the Administrative Review and Restructuring Working Group. He says Information Technology, costing about $300 million annually, brought the most obvious concerns. Bazzani says only a third of that supports central computing operations on the U of I's three campuses, as well as the administration and university hospital. He says that leaves a lot of opportunities for consolidation among data centers... potentially saving on equipment, energy costs, space... and personnel. "If we can become more system-itized in renewing all our desktop equipment at essentially a scheduled basis, we made an estimate for example we might be able to reduce 50 people who simply would not be needed to support the maintenance on desktops," said Bazzani. "So I.T. is one area I would point to for lots of opportunities for consolidation - a fresh look at new technology."
Bazzani's group said the school could save about $18 million in information technology functions. Another targeted area of the review is administration. Bazzani suggests reductions in the number of vice chancellors and assistants, saying the the three campuses need as many as are necessary, but as few as possible. "It's unimaginable that we would ask faculty and students to do more before we really have an opportunity to really deal with handling administrative costs in a better way," said Bazzani. "That was a clear signal from the president and the chancellors directly that we order and demonstrate things in a way to the academy that they feel comfortable before tuition goes up another nickel that we address some of these other problems."
Bazzani says it's often difficult for administrators to do their own internal review, but notes the U of I will need some outside help to deal with changes in the state's pension laws and how they affect human resources. "But to create a blueprint, it was our judgment that we know our culture best, we have an enormous number of content experts inside the university, many talented creative faculty and staff, and gave them the opportunity to step back in a very independent way, a very unbrideled way, to give us the best professional advice about where we see things moving in the next five years."
And he says while his panel is respectful of the academic differences between each U of I campus, members want to find ways to make administrators more compatible between the three cities. U of I Interim President Stanley Ikenberry will lead an implementation team to begin considering these and other changes. Bazzani says administration is moving quickly on the plan - and savings could be seen in as soon as two years.
Construction of the first development at the I-57 Curtis Road Interchange could begin this fall.
"Wellness at Prairie Village" is to feature a community wellness center, a 50-unit senior living facility, as well as shops office space and residential development. But the only firm commitment at the site is a new Christie Clinic facility. Developer Todd Raufeisen says they're talking to other potential tenants who will want to build next to Christie Clinic.
"Christie is the one that's providing the momentum to get the project started", says Raufeisen. "A lot of the users that we talk to like to be next to hospitals and clinics such as Christie. But as with any development, you got to start with somebody. And Christie's our anchor at the end of the day. They're taking 20 out of the 60s acres for the sake of round numbers. And that's what we'll start around."
Champaign City Council members gave the go-ahead Tuesday night for city staff to continue working with Raufeisen on planning for for Wellness at Prairie Village .
Several council members expressed concerns that the development might contain excessive parking --- they want the site to be more aesthetically pleasing that the retail developments in the North Prospect area.
However, Councilman Tom Bruno added that he was just grateful to see a developer interested in the Curtis Road site.
"But I don't want those concerns about parking at this early stage of discussion about the planning stages of this take the luster off the delight I feel that all of you players are thinking about developing at this location in our community at this time in our economic history", said Bruno.
Raufeisen says Christie Clinic wants to start construction this fall --- he says it could take 5 to 7 years to completely develop the rest of the 60 acre site. Wellness at Prairie Village would take up about one-eighth of the land at the Curtis Road Interchange.
The city of Champaign is instituting changes to its Police Complaint Process --- in the wake of last fall's police shooting of teen-ager Kiwane Carrington.
The revamped complaint process is meant to be simpler and less intimidating, with a PR campaign to tell the public how it works. But all complaints will still be reviewed by the police department --- with appeals going to the city manager. At Tuesday night's city council study session, about a dozen Champaign and Urbana residents said the council should consider a citizens review board or other outside body to hear appeals. Councilman Will Kyles agreed.
"I support what has been brought forth, but I know that an outside voice has to look into these things" said Kyles. "It just has to be or we will continue to have these conversations over the next few years."
Councilman Tom Bruno remains cool to the idea --- he says those who spoke in favor of a Citizens Review Board are in the minority citywide.
"I frankly don't hear a preponderance of the citizens of Champaign asking for one", says Bruno.
City Manager Steve Carter says one new part of the police complaint process will allow residents to opt for working things out with a professional mediator, bypassing the formal complaint process.
"What they really want is to seek some fairness to the resolution, which involves a face-to-face discussion with the officer" says Carter, "so that they can express their feelings at about what happened, and their concern. And then also hear back from the officer about why the officer did what he did or she did,and just arrive at an understanding and just an ability to talk through that."
The mediation option was singled out for praise by several council members, and by several members of the public who criticized the city for not including a Citizens Review Board as part of the complaint process.
Council members voted unanimously to endorse the new Police Complaint process during the study session. No further action is needed
A researcher at Mayo Clinic says a new collaboration with the University of Illinois will enable his facility to interpret the school's research.
The alliance impacting clinical research, bioengineering, and diagnostics has been in the works for about 18 months. Eric Wieben is Director of Mayo's Advanced Genomics Technology Center. He says the two entities complement one another well. For Wieben's line of work, he says DNA sequencing instruments are turning out more data each time they're used. Wieben says an institution like the U of I will improve care for patients by reading more than a billion letters of DNA code in one hour. "Mayo has a lot of patient information and samples that are in the queue for DNA sequencing," says Wieben. "The University of Illinois has world-renowned computing resources and the people who know how to use those to effectively make knowledge out of large amounts of data."
A Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the U of I, Rashid Bashir, says the goal of an alliance between the two is improving individualized medicine. The partnership will focus on computer-based skills, like tissue engineering. Bashir says this partnership could result in facilities that detect different markers of disease by feeding data through a digital network. He says the two parties have already received about 30 requests from researchers to work on the project, but that number could be growing. "We really hope that it will be open to any and all researchers from the University of Illinois and any researchers and physicians from Mayo Clinic," said Bashir. "Some partnerships have already initiated and we hope many more will come. So it's really kind of an umbrella agreement that gets the two institutions to work together towards these grant challenges for health care."
Both the U of I and Mayo Clinic are placing some seed money into the alliance, but Bashir says the majority of the work will rely on federal grant applications. The U of I and Mayo Clinic will each put some seed funds for the project, but the collaborators will seek out federal grants for most of their research. Mayo Clinic has three campuses, operating in Minnesota, Florida, and Arizona.
Less revenue, less spending, and more vacant positions are features of the budget approved by the Urbana City Council Monday night.
The$ 48 million budget avoids any staff layoffs by leaving seven positions vacant, and by freezing salaries --- although contract negotiations with city unions are still in progress. It also relies on six million dollars in city fund reserves to fill the gap between city spending and projected tax revenues.
In introducing some last-minute revisions, Mayor Laurel Prussing says she had some good news from city Comptroller Rod Eldridge. According to the mayor, "Ron Eldridge says that even though our revenues are going to be down a little bit more for this year, our spending is going to be down even more. So we're going to have more of an ending fund balance than he originally anticipated."
The budget passed on a 5 to 2 vote.
Meanwhile, Urbana council members had mixed opinions during their first discussion of the mayor's proposal for a city motor fuel tax.
Republican Heather Stevenson says the mayor's tax would simply send motorists to Champaign to shop for gasoline --- and they might shop for other things as well.
"If I can save it by going across Wright Street, then I might as well continue to go and spend the money that I've saved, not spending money on gas in Urbana, at the shops in Champaign", says Stevenson.
But Mayor Prussing says a two-cent motor fuel tax would hardly be noticed amidst the ups and downs of gasoline prices.
"Two cents per gallon - the price fluctuations are much bigger than that", says Prussing. "You see 20-cent differences in prices per gallon, so I think two cents is very small."
But Prussing says a 2-cent tax would be enough to bring in another $500,000 a year for the city to spend on improving its streets. Urbana already receives money from a state motor fuel tax, but the mayor says that revenue hasn't kept up with rising costs. Prussing says she'll have her staff do more research on her gas tax proposal, and come back to the council with information on other small cities with motor fuel taxes.
By a 5 to 2 vote, the Urbana City Council has banned the outdoor use of indoor furniture.
Council members Heather Stevenson and Dennis Roberts cast the two votes against the ban. Both of them said the government had no business telling people what they could do with furniture at their own homes and yards. Roberts says he's gotten a lot of feedback from the public on the ban, most of it in opposition.
"They agree that the city is sort of tip-toeing into overregulation of people's habitats and homes", said Roberts.
But Alderman Dave Gehrig argues that the dangers involved in keeping flammable indoor furniture out of doors are too great to ignore.
It's more than a decade since we had a fire death in Urbana, and this is about trying to keep it that way", said Gehrig.
Gehrig cited last month's fire at a rental house on Stoughton Street near Lincoln Avenue. Eight people were displaced --- one of them severely burned --- when fire in a couch on the front porch spread to the entire house.
Urbana Fire Chief Michael Dilley says the outcome could very well have been fatal.
"We dodged a bullet, so to speak", says Dilley. "And we decided, I don't want to ever go to another fire again, and see a young lady of that age, with the type of burns on her body pulled out of a building like, if I can do anything about it. As fire chief, that's my job."
Dilley says indoor furniture stored on a porch or elsewhere outdoors can be easily set ablaze, and a fire can be well underway before people inside the house find out about it.
Urbana's ordinance is similar to one already on the books in Champaign. Repeat offenders will be subject to possible fines set by a judge. The ordinance makes exceptions for furniture brought outside to be sold at a yard sale, or left out for garbage pickup.
Illinois' financial uncertainty has prompted a lot of school districts to move to one-year contracts for teachers.
But a union spokesman says that's not the case in East Central Illinois. The Illinois Education Association's Gene Vanderport says the districts in the area have been pretty fair to those he represents. He says there have been a lot of early settlements with multi-year contracts, including Urbana, and he expects those in Gifford and Rantoul City Schools to settle soon as well. But Vanderport admits it's been a struggle for most school districts. "Nobody's getting rich in public education, that's for sure,"said Vanderport. "We're down to absolute bare minimum of people doing the services that need to be done, to educate the kids. We're not making Buicks, we're educating brains, and it takes X number of people to do that. School boards recognize that we gotta keep feeding our families, and they've been relatively decent across the board in recognizing our needs."
Still, Vanderport says his union and others are trying to settle without asking for too much, while urging state and federal lawmakers to work on a consistent and sustainable school funding formula. "That's why we're for progressive funding mechanisms that aren't in place at this point," said Vanderport. "And we hope to continue to lobby for those, and make those issues election-year issues." Vanderport says negotiations with Champaign teachers are still taking a while. The two sides have been bargaining since January, and he says salary and benefits remain the sticking points. Vanderport says Champaign Unit 4 schools and his union should wrap up talks by August, but he says it's hard to say what the length of the contract will be.
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