Illinois Public Media News
The Champaign City Council voted Tuesday night to endorse a plan to fill a projected six-million dollar budget shortfall, created by a drop in city tax revenues.
The study session vote gives Champaign city staff the go-ahead to develop a budget plan that cuts spending, moves more money into the general fund from other areas, and increases some city fees while creating new ones. Council members had questions about the fees, as well as proposed cuts in staff postions --- all of them currently vacant, or expected to become vacant soon.
Council member Marci Dodds says despite her misgivings, she thinks the overall proposal will fill a budget hole without doing lasting harm to city services. "The whole goal", says Dodds, "was not to have tremendous impact on the public, or to just do a slice-and-dice, across-the-board cut; but really, to do this so we would preserve core city services".
Council members paid particular attention to the changes in city fees. Champaign Finance Director Richard Schnuer says the fee changes make up only about 20 percent of the overall proposal, and that the details are subject to change. The fee proposals include a more than 13-thousand percent jump in the license fee for ambulance services, an expansion of the natural gas tax to cover non-AmerenIP customers and a hike in the city franchise fee for cable TV customers.
Schnuer says they'll present a complete budget proposal to the city council in six weeks. Council members will review in study sessions in May, before taking a final vote in June.
The city of Urbana does NOT plan a similar cut to its budget. Mayor Laurel Prussing says she's been told by city comptroller Ron Eldridge that sales tax dollars from new retail developments puts Urbana on a firmer financial footing that some other local communities.
Governor Quinn addressed the Illinois General Assembly at noon today.
An agribusiness leader from Greenville is Governor Pat Quinn's choice to serve as the next University of Illinois Trustee. U of I graduate Ed McMillan is a former CEO with Ralston Purina Company who now runs a consulting business. He's also stayed involved with the university, serving on its Alumni Association and U of I Foundation Boards, and heads the board of managers that oversees U of I Research Parks in Champaign and Chicago. Once his appointment is confirmed by the Illinois Senate, McMillan says he wants to draw on that research, working further to lure new technology to the campuses. And he says a 'nimble and creative' approach to higher education funding will help yield some of those benefits.
"That leads to the ability to attract and retain what I would call world class people to the institution in both teaching and research and development of tecnology and outreach," says McMillan. "That is, of course, very important to the college of ag and to agribusiness in Illinois, but outreach and extension is also very important to rural community and community development." The 63-year old McMillan is a 1969 agriculture science graduate. He's a Republican, and says he wasn't seeking out the office, but is honored to be asked. McMillan will replace Robert Sperling on the Board of Trustees, and will be one of three downstate voting members.
Mahomet Republican House member Chapin Rose calls McMillan a 'quality pick,' saying he's happy that Governor Quinn is following through on a recent pledge to tap U of I alumni groups for trustee considerations. Rose and other local lawmakers recently signed a resolution with that request.
Caterpillar Inc. has instituted rolling layoffs at its Pontiac plant. The move allows the plant to furlough its work force for a time while remaining in operation.
The acting president of United Auto Workers Local 2096 says the plant will shut down for the week of March 23 and then again for the week of April 13. The plant employs about 700 people, including 520 union members.
Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan says the company has announced a wide range of actions as it tries to deal with the slow growth in the global economy.
The Peoria-based company on Tuesday also announced plans to lay off more than 2,400 employees at five plants in Illinois, Indiana and Georgia. In Illinois, more than 1,700 workers at plants in East Peoria and Aurora are affected.
The Champaign City Council will tell its staff tonight whether it likes the six-million dollar patch proposed for the city budget.
The proposal includes the elimination of staff positions that are either currently vacant, or expected to become vacant in the near future. Spending on capital improvement projects would drop, with some of the money earmarked for that use transferred over to the city's General Fund. And Champaign would raise some of its current fees and create new ones.
Assistant City Manager Dorothy David says the proposal is meant to address a decline in tax revenue, due to the recession. She says it would help the next Champaign city budget --- and budgets to come.
"This six million dollars is really a multi-year strategy designed to position us to not only balance the budget next year but to work through the next couple of years of economic downturn and recovery," said David.
The city has held a series of public forums on its budget proposal. The third and final forum is set for 2 this afternoon in the Champaign City Council chamber. Tonight's study session on the proposal will be held after the regular City Council meeting at 7.
Champaign and Urbana are both considering massive increases in the license fees they charge to the area's two ambulance companies.
If the increases are approved, Carle-Arrow Ambulance and Pro Ambulance would each pay a total of $35,000 a year to operate in Champaign and Urbana. Currently, they pay less than $300 apiece.
Officials from the two cities say they need the increase to cover the cost of Fire Department emergency medical personnel who go out with each ambulance call. Champaign Assistant City Manager Dorothy David says they expect the patients' insurance companies to ultimately foot the bill.
"The city will charge the fee directly to the ambulance companies," said David, "but the ambulance companies then will build that into their billing structure when they go out on a call and actually bill their cost back to an insurance company."
But officials with the ambulance companies say many emergency patients don't have insurance or are otherwise unable to pay the present ambulance fee. They say the proposal needs more discussion, and more discussion seems likely. While both city councils are considering the idea this week as part of overall revisions to their fee schedule, neither body will make a final decision until they pass their budgets later in the spring. Urbana city officials say they'll only raise ambulance license fees if Champaign does the same.
Good government groups want to cap individual campaign contributions to Illinois politicians.
Legislative leaders are skeptical that will clean up the state's ethical mess. Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform told a joint legislative committee on ethics reform that individual contributions should be limited to $2,400 per election _ same as in federal campaigns.
The committee's co-chairmen, Sen. John Cullerton and House Speaker Michael Madigan, say limiting the amount candidates can get or parties can give would hurt in races against independently wealthy foes.
Canary is part of a group that has come together to push the issue. CHANGE Illinois set up a toll-free phone number that allows callers to be connected to their legislators to lobby for caps.
An expert on seismic activity at the University of Illinois says he doesn't buy into a recent theory that the New Madrid Seismic Zone could be 'shutting down.'
Professors from Purdue and Northwestern universities have used GPS technology to measure surface movement in the region, which is now at less than point-two millimeters a year. The researchers say the slower the ground moves, the longer it takes for the next earthquake. The last massive ones -- three of them -- occurred in the New Madrid in 1811 and 1812.
But the Director of the UI's Mid-America Earthquake Center says those readings don't mean much since we don't understand how the mechanism is happening. Amr Elnashai also says these measurements shouldn't apply to a fault line unlike any other worldwide. He questions the definition of "closing down," saying there's no evidence of other earthquake faults that have closed down.
Elnashai says the latest theory also ignores the work of the New Madrid researchers with the University of Memphis and US Geological Survey. He says scores of scientists have determined that soil in the seismic zone has liquefied as a result of quakes that occurred well before the 1800s, and could lead to more quake activity.
Elnashai says there could be a million other explanations behind slow fault motion... and that two scientists shouldn't put the extensive research of many others and safety of eight states into jeopardy.
A finance professor at the University of Illinois says a recent modest recovery in the stock market is a true sign of a better economy ahead, even if it's a weak sign.
David Ikenberry says skepticism over whether the stock markets are an accurate barometer of the overall economy is misplaced. He says stock investors are concerned about looking forward and factoring in growth expectations, even if current news on other economic fronts -- such as unemployment or consumer spending -- is still bleak.
"To the extent that we see recovery, that we see some of those green shoots of a turnaround, you can see the stock market going up today, whereas unemployment actually gets worse," Ikenberry says. "And that's one of the puzzling features of markets."
Ikenberry believes the optimism mentioned by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in an interview yesterday (Sun) was warranted. But he warns against interpreting day-to-day market swings, even though he says volatility in the markets has declined since last fall.
The state's utility regulators have a years' worth of documents at their fingertips when they vote on the prices utility companies can charge their customers. But some lawmakers say members of the Illinois Commerce Commission need an earful of information, too.
Democratic Representative Bob Flider of Decatur compares it to a court case. Lawyers provide the jury with a lot of paperwork, but the jury also gets to hear testimony. He says its a level of understanding that members of the Illinois Commerce Commission often don't get. For example, last year the ICC denied a request from the Attorney General to make an oral argument against Ameren raising its rates.
"So they think they have these documents, they have the recommendations, 'oh we don't need to hear any of that," Flider said. "Well, maybe they do need to hear that."
Flider is sponsor of a measure now before the Illinois House that would require the Commission grant all requests from entities wanting to testify at hearings that could result in rate or regulation changes. The Attorney General's office says the legislation will give consumers a greater voice. An ICC spokesperson says it's reviewing the proposal. She says commissioners have written arguments, they'll hear testimony if they have questions.
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