Illinois Public Media News
The National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency have awarded $2 million to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The grant will be used to create a new research center to study how exposure to common chemicals may affect childhood development.
Center director neurotoxicologist Susan Schantz said studies will focus on bisphenol A (BPA), which is widely used in plastics, and phthalates, which are components of many scented personal care products, like lotions and shampoos.
"We know from laboratory animal studies that both of these chemicals are endocrine disrupters," Schantz said, "so they can mess with certain hormonal systems in the body."
One study will involve pregnant women volunteers from local health clinics. "We're going to follow their health and take urine samples during their pregnancy so we can assess their exposure to the two chemicals, and then from the time their babies are born we're going to follow them developmentally," Schantz explained.
A related study at Harvard University will examine how exposure to BPA and phthalates relates to cognitive development in adolescents.
A Champaign County Judge has been asked to provide local taxing bodies with some clarity over whether they are free to use property tax funds paid out by Provena Covenant Medical Center.
Champaign County Treasurer Dan Welch wants to know what years between 2002 and 2009 will not remain part of a legal battle over the hospital's tax-exempt status.
"Tell us which ones are in jeopardy, and which ones are not," Welch said. "Just let Provena make their case to the judge about what legal authority they believe they have to tie up any of that money. If they can't, then I assume Urbana will be able to release whatever they want, but leave it up to the judge, let them make their legal argument."
Welch said Provena is appealing its 2006 property taxes. More than $8 million of the remaining funds, or 99 percent, is earmarked for a Tax Increment Financing District in Urbana. Welch said the city is not required to give it to anyone else, but Urbana opted to release some to other local governments. Champaign County's share of tax dollars for that stretch is about $600,000.
"Urbana wants to give this money to the taxing districts, and all taxing districts are in need of some money," Welch said. "So it makes some sense if we can clarify it once and for all. Yet some money is not in jeopardy of not having to be refunded again, and some money may be. Whatever the answer is, we just want to know what that answer is."
Welch said it could be several years before the county finds out what a judge's ruling will be for 2006. While his office still is not holding any of this money, it is still up to the Treasurer to keep track of tax dollars that have been paid or refunded. Welch said it has been difficult keeping track of the tax liability for each of the taxing districts.
Illinois Congressman John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) has joined the list of Republicans seeking to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee next year.
News reports have listed Michigan Republican Fred Upton as a front-runner for the position. He has more seniority than Shimkus, but some conservative groups say he's too moderate. Shimkus stated that he will leave that question to the House Republican Steering Committee, when decisions on leadership posts are made next month.
"The steering committee has to decide, kind of what position do you want to lead from?" Shimkus said. "I'm viewed as more conservative; Fred's viewed as a little more moderate. They may want that. I don't know. I just want to have the opportunity to make my pitch."
Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) and former Energy Committee Chairman Joe Barton of (R-Texas) are also seeking the chairmanship. Shimkus said he would step aside if Barton receives a waiver that would allow him to be chairman again.
Shimkus said a top priority as Energy and Commerce chairman would be to have a vote on repealing the federal health reform law. A repeal is unlikely to make it through the Senate, but Shimkus said the sooner the House takes action, the faster it can focus on oversight and making revisions to the law. He said there may even be changes where both Republicans and the Obama administration can reach agreement.
"Hopefully there will be some that the administration helps identify as problems that we fix, that will not be controversial," Shimkus said. "Obviously there'll be things that they'll want to keep, and we're just going to have to have those fights."
Shimkus said one such change could be the repeal of a requirement in the health care law that companies issue 1099 tax forms whenever they buy more than $600 in goods or services in a given year. Shimkus said the millions of new tax documents that result would be a burden on small businesses.
Shimkus is a 14-year member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is currently the ranking minority member of its Health Subcommittee.
Employees at the Southern Illinois University campus at Carbondale will be facing four unpaid furlough days during the current school year.
Chancellor Rita Cheng's office announced this week that an agreement has been reached with several unions on campus that will allow for the furlough days, as one way to close a budget shortfall. Cheng says other suggestions --- like requiring more furlough days for higher-income employees had been discussed as a way to make their burden more equitable --- but the idea was ultimately turned down.
"For example, if someone makes $30,000 (a year), a day is about $100," Cheng said. "For someone who makes $300,000, a day is $1,000. So there will be a difference of what people contribute, based on scaling of a day, rather than taking a flat rate from everyone."
Six unions on the Carbondale campus are still holding out for more information and options to avoid the furlough days. Leaders of those unions --- including ones for faculty and civil service employees - announced Tuesday night they would work together against the furloughs
Faculty Association President Randy Hughes said six campus unions are united in their intention to fight the furlough plan.
"All six of us will work to protect the rights of others to negotiate, to be free from any sort of unilateral or illegal action on the part of the university to impose administrative closures without bargaining in good faith," Hughes said..
The planned closure days are scheduled during student breaks in November, December, January and March, and won't affect classes. The university's student employees are exempt from the unpaid days.
An 11-member board that will redraw districts for the Champaign County Board has received tentative approval from board members.
The county's Redistricting Commission was supported in last night's committee of the whole meeting on a 23 to 2 vote. The concept of the panel is to have an open and transparent process for re-drawing boundaries based on 2010 census numbers. County Board Chair Pius Weibel selected the 11 names after interviewing 39 applicants. Democrat Brendan McGinty said it is unlikely that any other county board member would have chosen all the same names, but that's not his concern.
"I would have preferred to keep it completely non-political, but I do think that it's important to have some people on there with some experience at doing this," McGinty said. "It's not only the job of the other members to take into question how best to do this, but it's also our job and the community's job to watchdog how this takes place."
Republican Alan Nudo called this a groundbreaking decision for the county, state, and nation.
"This is not just a 6-month project, this is a 10-year project," Nudo stated. "The voting cycles from now through the end of 2020 will be affected by this. So we have to make sure that those seven citizens and the four County Board members look at it from the standpoint of what's right for the citizenry of the county and not the party."
The two 'no' votes from Democrat Carol Ammons, who said the group lacks diversity, and Royal Republican Ron Bensyl, who rejected it despite being named to the committee. Bensyl said he rejected two names on the panel, but other board members said they likely would have chosen different candidates among the 39 that applied.
The commission will consist of two Democrats and two Republicans from the County Board. Besides Bensyl, Republican Jonathan Schroeder, and Democrats Alan Kurtz and Michael Richards have been recommended. The seven at-large members include former State Senator Rick Winkel, former Urbana City Council member Esther Patt, and Unity High School teacher Diana Herriott of Sidney.
Meanwhile, a draft resolution has been prepared based on an advisory referendum approved by 74-percent of Champaign County voters last week. It calls for reducing the county board from 27 to 22 members, and changing from 9 districts of three members each to 11 districts of two members each. If the County Board follows through with the changes, they will take effect with the 2012 election. Board Chair Weibel said the next county board will likely review the plan in December.
Meanwhile, Weibel said he has not decided whether he wants to continue as County Board chair, but will announce his plans soon.
A string of campus assaults and robberies in recent weeks has led the University of Illinois to activate its campus call center for the first time.
The latest incident involved a U of I freshman who was sexually abused Monday morning in a dormitory shower. University police Chief Barbara O'Connor said just in the last day, the university has been flooded with about a hundred e-mail and phone messages regarding that attack.
"You know, whenever we get parent calls and or e-mails, we attempt to take an individualized approach to responding to those, but at some point, the volume becomes so significant that you can't keep doing that any longer," O'Connor said. "We're at that point."
She said the call center will allow the university to give plenty of attention to each caller, and give university police more time to investigate criminal activity.
"We can get inundated so much so that the work of doing the investigation can get bogged down in responding to e-mails and phone calls," O'Connor explained.
University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the 60 volunteers who have agreed to help out at the call center work in student affairs, and have extensive experience handling privacy issues. They were each required to go through a 90-minute training session before they could start working the phones.
The U of I community is encouraged to forward all messages regarding crime and safety on campus to 217-333-0050.
The Savoy 16 is offering monthly screenings with the volume in the theatre turned down, and the lights brought up. As Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports, it is part of an effort by the theatre's parent company to accommodate children with neurological disorders.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
University of Illinois President Michael Hogan said it is hard to say how much tuition will go up in the 2011-2012 school year, but he said students and parents 'won't stomach' another one of 9 to 10 percent.
Administrators plan to recommend the amount of that increase by January. The uncertainty over state funding the past couple of years has prompted the U of I to wait as late as June to approve the next fall's tuition.However, Hogan said administrators cannot continue to keep parents and students waiting.
"That doesn't work very well for us for planning purposes, and recruiting students," he said. "Because it doesn't allow us to tell students (about tuition), half of them get some form of financial assistance. So students that are applying here need to know sooner rather than later if they're getting in, and what their financial aid package will be. Or they go somewhere else."
Hogan made his comments following a presentation on tuition and affordability at the U of I Board of Trustees' Audit and Budget committee meeting. He said the drop of state support in the past decade has been 'staggering.'
Associate Vice President for Planning and Budget Randy Kangas said the U of I's appropriation is below what it was for the 1999 Fiscal Year, before adjusting for inflation. The university is currently owed about $320-million in state appropriations.
Hogan emphasized that last year's increase of 9.5 percent was one of the lowest tuition hikes in the country.
"So we've got to change the rhetoric of what we're looking at," Hogan said. "Rather than the one big bump (9.5%) to get a realistic understanding of what students are actually going to pay year in and year out as they go through a 4-year degree program.
A Champaign County housing task force is studying the number of available homes in the area to identify housing needs and economic gaps that can be filled within the community.
The Regional Housing Task Force is made up of officials in Champaign County, Champaign, Urbana, the Housing Authority of Champaign County and the village of Rantoul.
In a preliminary report, the task force identified the city of Champaign as not having enough rental housing units in low-income and minority areas, specifically in sections of the city that border Urbana. According to the study, a five-year need exists for 127 additional rental units that are affordable to households earning less than $20,000.
The city's Neighborhood Programs Manager Kerri Spear said she hopes the report helps shed light on what can be done to curb homelessness in the whole county. Spear, who is part of the task force, said more rental housing units should be spread out across Champaign County to prevent the further concentration of poverty.
"Homelessness does not just impact one city," she said. "There's a need to create more affordable rental units."
The study also suggested that adding market rate homes to high poverty areas could help boost the economy.
The report also indicated that there is a surplus of owner occupied homes in Champaign. Between January 2000 and September 2010, a total of 4,129 new homes were built in Champaign County. Just in Champaign, many developers overbuilt "high end" single-family homes that are valued between less than $140,000 and more than $400,000, which has left about a three to four-year supply of extra lots within the city.
"So, there may be a surplus of housing units in one community," Spear said. "But yet if the people that need those units are in another community, do they have the transportation options available, or are there jobs in that area?"
Households with incomes of less than $20,000 were found to have a five-year surplus of housing units in Urbana and Rantoul.
The Champaign City Council will hear details about the report at its regular meeting Tuesday at 7:30pm at the Illinois Terminal Building. The task force then plans to present its findings during a public open house on Tuesday, November 16 from 5-6:30 pm at the City Building at 102 N. Neil St., Champaign.
A panel created by state lawmakers is wrapping up work on recommendations on higher education funding. The proposals include changes to the MAP financial aid program, and tying state funding bonuses for colleges and universities to institutional performance --- such as a school's graduation rate.
University of Illinois President Michael Hogan said he thinks his school will do pretty well on the institutional performance front. But the commission's recommendations will also include increased funding for higher education. Hogan said lawmakers will have to decide whether increasing higher education funding is important to them, at a time when state government faces a financial crisis.
"I think this is all part of a larger discussion we have to have with the state," Hogan said. "Because the real conundrum here is that the state can't afford us, but it can't afford to do without us. So we have to find a way to sustain the quality of the educational and research product we have on all of our campuses --- at a time when the state has no money for it."
Illinois Board of Higher Education executive director Don Sevener said the recommendations include requirements that colleges and universities don't sacrifice academic rigor in the quest to get students to complete their studies.
"We do not want to incentivize colleges simply to pass students along to get more money for more course completions or more degrees granted, if those degrees are not high quality and useful in the marketplace," Sevener said.
The Illinois Higher Education Finance Study Commission holds its final meeting Wednesday, November 10, at Columbia College in Chicago. Lawmakers want the commission's final report is to be ready for review by December 1st. The Study Commission is made up of lawmakers and educators, including Illinois State University professor James Palmer, an expert in higher education funding.
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