Illinois Public Media News
The federal economic stimulus contains millions of dollars in research funding - money the University of Illinois is competing for, against dozens of other research institutions.
That's putting an unprecedented burden on the office that handles grant applications, which has already seen a big increase in grants over the past five years. The director of the Office of Sponsored Programs and Research Administration, Kathy Young, says they're still getting a handle on the crush of activity.
"We can't staff for what we don't know about yet," said Young. "It's going to be a concerted effort of the existing staff to shoulder the burden and do what we can. My management team and I are looking at what tasks we can parse off to keep the subject-matter experts working on the really critical issues."
Young says temporary staff may be able to handle the rest of the workload. The U of I says the federal government itself is also undergoing a flood of requests for grants from the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy and other agencies that have gotten billions of dollars in research money. Federal officials expect a 60 percent increase in grant activity over the next six months.
A bill to help steer voluntary donations towards crisis nurseries in Illinois has made its second appearance in Springfield.
Crisis nurseries provide free short-term child care for families undergoing emergencies. Stephanie Record (reh-CORD) is executive director of the Crisis Nursery in Urbana. She says the legislation would make more funding possible, at a time when her agency is seeing a drop in grant funding and an increase in demand for services.
"If we get 100,000 people to check off every year, explains Record, "we would be able to remain on there, and then split those dollars between the six nurseries throughout the state".
State Senator Mike Frerichs of Champaign says his bill passed the Senate last year, but was blocked in the House due to infighting between the House Speaker and former Governor Rod Blagjevich. He's more optimistic about the bill's chances this year. The measure passed the Senate last month, and is being sponsored in the House by Danville Republican Bill Black.
If the bill becomes law, crisis nurseries in Illinois would join ten other charities to which Illinois taxpayers may donate part of their tax refund. Frerichs says he doesn't agree with legislators who say that bringing in a new charity will hurt levels of giving to those already on the tax checkoff list.
A nationwide day of protests linked to the federal tax deadline included a 400-person rally in Champaign.
The gathering was one of hundreds of so-called "tea party" rallies meant to vent about what participants call excessive taxation. But organizer Kevin Waite says the target of the protest went beyond economic worries.
"Certainly there is some anger, and a lot of people here are not only here for the financial issues but peripheral issues as well, because we feel that as time progresses our liberties are being diminished," Waite said.
Becky Brouillard of Rantoul says she's never taken part in political activities, but she says recent stories of the bailout and stimulus bills sparked her anger - but she says that anger is directed at members of both major parties.
"I know this has been spun as being about Obama and different things, that's not it," Brouillard said. "I think that's it's just a general unrest about where the federal government's going."
Randy Stufflebeam called on participants to engage in a new revolution, though not an armed revolution - yet. The 2006 Constitution Party candidate for Illinois governor was the keynote speaker.
For the second year in a row, voters at the annual town meeting in Urbana have turned down a request to place an advisory referendum on the ballot supporting Instant Runoff Voting.
The vote at Tuesday night's annual town meeting for Cunningham Township in Urbana was 82 to 13 against putting the referendum on next year's primary ballot. One of the opponents was Champaign County Board Member Tom Betz. He says most Urbana voters agree with him that Instant Runoff Voting is not a fair way to conduct elections, "because it disenfranchises voters". Betz went on, "It allows a second place candidate to potentially win. I believe in majority rule, and this is not majority rule. It's anti-democratic. I don't even believe it's lawful in the state of Illinois."
But supporters of the proposal accuse Democrats of denying voters the chance to make their own decision on the matter.
Under Instant Runoff Voting, voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the ballots for the candidate with the least votes is recounted using the voters' second choice, and so on, until a majority winner is chosen.
Meanwhile, over at the City of Champaign town meeting, the vote was 29 to 4 in favor of putting a non-binding question on the 2010 primary ballot in favor of a property tax hike for Township General Assistance.
Champaign voters previously approved a non-binding referendum for more Township aid for the poor last spring. But they've twice defeated referenda calling for actual property tax hikes. Randall Cotton, who sponsored the question at the town meeting last night, says they'll have to work harder to get their message across. But he says the support for the funding is there. "There's a growing group of people who are really very acutely interested in this issue," says Cotton. "And of course, it's more timely and important now than any time before in recent memory, because of the incredible downturn in the economy."
Cotton says the referendum that City of Champaign voters will see next year will provide more details than previous ones. He says it will point out that Champaign's funding for General Assistance is less than 10 percent of the average funding levels for Springfield, Bloomington and Peoria. And the resolution will call for a cap on how much property tax bills can go up.
The Champaign City Council has changed its mind, and will continue to award grants to social service agencies for another two years. But there will be new strings attached.
The grants, using federal funds, were scheduled to end July 1st. The city of Champaign was taking a different approach to social service funding --- working with the school and park districts to create its own initiatives targeting troubled neighborhoods, such as Garden Hills.
But city council members decided at last night's study session to continue granting money to local social service agencies through 2012, using 300-thousand dollars in city funds tagged for urban renewal. City Manager Steve Carter says these grants will only go to agencies ready to follow the pattern of the city's neighborhood initiatives. "It will be very much targeted," said Carter, "both in terms of geographic location in the community and the types of programs we're looking for."
Champaign officials changed their minds, because they saw local social service agencies losing funding due to the slumping economy, while the need for their services increased. At the same time, officials with the agencies argue the city funding can be crucial in obtaining matching grants, making city funds go further. "Essentially, ten thousand becaomes near enough 200-thousand dollars," said Tom Sullivan of the Center for Women in Transition.
Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.
Today's plea makes official Blagojevich's denial of political malfeasance that authorities say included a scheme to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich looked relaxed as he stood in court today alongside his brother, who also pleaded not guilty in the scheme.
The former governor didn't make a statement before the plea, but he told a throng of reporters as he entered the courthouse earlier that he's "innocent of every single accusation.''
Blagojevich also is charged with planning to squeeze money from companies seeking state business. And prosecutors contend heplotted to use the financial muscle of the governor's office to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers who had called for his impeachment.
The Champaign School Board is taking applications until the end of the month for people to serve on a new oversight committee to make sure they keep their promises.
During Monday night's Unit Four School Board meeting, Board President Dave Tomlinson said the "Promises Made, Promises Kept" Committee will oversee how the district uses money from the school facilities sales tax approved by Champaign County voters last week. "The oversight committee's going to keep us accountable," he explained.
Topping Unit Four's list for spending the sales tax revenue is construction of new classrooms for Champaign's north side. They're required by the Consent Decree. The new classrooms will be added on to Garden Hills School, and be part of a completely new Booker T. Washington school building. The district plans to follow that with construction of a new grade school in Savoy.
In addition, Unit Four plans to use sales tax revenue to pay off the district's existing bond debt --- allowing property taxes to be cut. Tomlinson says the tax savings will amount to about 32-dollars a year on a 150-thousand dollar home.
The new school facilities sales tax takes effect in 2010.
Zoning rules for wind turbine farms in Champaign County won the approval of a county board committee Monday night on a 7 to 2 vote.
The Environmental and Land Use Committee endorsed rules regulating large arrays of wind turbines up to 500 feet tall on agricultural land. Currently, Champaign County rules only cover small individual wind turbines or windmills.
Committee members decided to cut the size of the buffer required between wind farms and the nearest dwelling. The proposal called for at least a 1500-foot buffer. But committee Chair Barb Wysocki says a 1200-foot buffer is more common, and preferred by developers. "The developers who were at the meeting admitted that 1500 feet would not necessarily be a deal-breaker," says Wysocki. "But it would encourage them to rethink the configuration of the wind turbines and their placement in Champaign County.
County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall says he's hoping for quick county board approval next month of the wind turbine rules, so that developers already looking to set up wind farms in Champaign County can take quick action.
In the meantime, the wind farm zoning proposal remains with the Environmental and Land Use Committee for public comment. If a local government in the county decides to protest the rules, that would force a super-majority vote on the county board for the proposal to pass --- 21 votes instead of 14.
Police in Champaign and Urbana are preparing for more than nine thousand runners, many of whom will take a 26 mile tour around the two cities Saturday morning.
The first-ever Illinois Marathon will require patience from drivers as runners hit the city streets. Champaign police sergeant Scott Friedlein says on many parts of the course runners and vehicles will share the roads, so motorists will have to take extra precautions or find alternate routes.
"When you mix runners and traffic, you run a risk of situations occurring," Friedlein said. "The better we do at marking and making it very clear where people are supposed to be -- and we're working on that diligently on that as we speak -- then the safer the route becomes."
Friedlein says some streets will also be totally closed at times, and no-parking signs are going up along the marathon routes in both Champaign and Urbana. He calls it the largest event he's ever had to prepare for in his 15 years on the force because of the long route and hundreds of volunteers.
Gov. Pat Quinn has pardoned 11 people and ordered that their criminal records be expunged.
He says it's part of an effort to clear what he calls a "shameful'' backlog of almost 2,500 clemency requests that built up under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Crimes committed by those who were pardoned include drug possession, aggravated battery and burglary.
Quinn says this is just the first in a series of clemency petitions he will act on with the goal of drastically reducing the backlog by the end of the year.
He says each person he pardoned underwent a criminal background check.
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