Illinois Public Media News
The State of Illinois is out with an ambitious long range plan for road construction, even amid uncertainty over future funding.
The state wants to spend $5 billion on roads and bridges over the next year. That's nearly double what was outlined in recent plans.
The projects range from new roads, to repairs and efforts to ease traffic congestion.
Illinois AFL-CIO President Mike Carrigan says it will also put people to work.
"When people work, those paychecks go into local banks and it helps those local economies", says Carrigan. "In turn, those local economies help the state economy."
Illinois expects to use a mix of funding for the projects, much of it from the federal government this year. Beyond that, the state would also rely on proceeds from the new video gambling law. But many communities don't want to participate, and that could greatly reduce the amount of money available for infrastructure. Governor Pat Quinn says he's not worried.
"We have ample money in the first several years of our plan here to pay for everything", says Quinn. "I think we can carry forward whatever the case may be."
The Governor calls the road plan "fair", all regions of Illinois will have projects funded.
The New Art Film Festival is underway in downtown Champaign's Art Theater. The festival --- which opened Thursday night --- showcases films by local and Midwest independent filmmakers.
Sanford Hess, the Art Theater operator, says the timing for it now was perfect, with the Boneyard Arts Festival also going on in Champaign-Urbana this weekend.
"We're looking at some of the materials that I'd been sent from Boneyard in February, and I just realized it was a great match", says Hess. I mean, here's local artists; they're doing work in a different media - film - but they're local artists."
Hess says the New Art Film Festival also will be a nice lead-in to Ebertfest next week.
The Film Festival will feature more than 20 films of many genres - from comedy to drama to documentaries..
Friday night's movies include the videogame parody "Press Start" produced by Champaign-based Dark Maze Studios. Also on the bill is Robin Christian's film "Act Your Age", featuring the late Pat Morita.
People from Wisconsin down to Missouri reported seeing a meteor that lit up the midwestern sky Wednesday night. It appeared a little past 10 PM.
At exactly that moment, Steve Baron was in the window seat of a Southwest Airlines jet flying from Las Vegas to Chicago. Suddenly, he saw a flash he describes as "impossibly bright."
"Like if you lit magnesium on fire", Baron explained. "It was like daylight outside, only it was the brightest day you've ever seen."
Baron, a vice president at Chicago-based Local TV L-L-C, is a former broadcast meteorologist. But this didn't look like any weather event Baron had ever seen.
Baron said he wonders, "Is it, like, a missile or something? Are we flying over a bombing range? Then it dawned on me that it had to be coming from outer space."
Scientists say he's probably right. The object is presumed to be a meteor entering the earth's atmosphere, or possibly, a piece of space junk.
Andy Ervin is a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities. He says the object was a meteor, "certainly the brightest meteor I've ever seen". Ervin says most eyewitnesses the Weather Service has talked to say it was "exceptionally bright or probably the brightest thing most folks have seen in the sky beyond lightning or the sun".
Forecasters say a meteor shower called Gamma Virginids began April 4 and is expected to last to April 21 with peak activity Wednesday and Thursday. But they couldn't immediately confirm if the Midwest meteor was part of that shower.
(Additional reporting from the Associated Press)
Water bills in the Champaign area are expected to go up next month, but state regulators say the local water company won't get the full increase it's seeking.
Last year, Illinois American Water sought an increase of nearly 35% for customers in Champaign-Urbana. But a spokeswoman for the Illinois Commerce Commission says cost estimates for the company, expenses it planned to recoup through a rate hike, were simply too high. The agency has trimmed Illinois American's rate hike request to about 22%. It filed the request with the ICC last May. The company now has about five days to adjust its rates. ICC Chairman Manuel Flores says the company can't view customers as 'an open checkbook'.
Spokeswoman Beth Bosch says the agency had also asked the water company to conduct a cost of service study, to provide a baseline for what some services cost. "These cases when they're filed, they take about a year to go through," says Bosch. "The study they did was done two years ago. So there was some question about whether it was of any value to the case. So that was another issue. And so the commission felt that the company needs to file a timely cost of service study with a rate case, not something that's been done prior." Bosch says Illinois American was seeking $61 million in additional annual revenue - that amount has been reduced by about $20 million. Randy West with Illinois American says the company won't know how much rates will be adjusted until it has time to review the order from the ICC. He says the company has provided the agency with thousands of documents to justify the new rate hike, and a previous one. West says most of the funds from increases in the Champaign area are paying for a new water treatment plant that went on line in late 2008.
Illinois home foreclosure activity during the first quarter of 2010 fell 4.6 percent from the previous quarter, but was still higher than the first quarter of 2009.
A report released Thursday by Irvine, Calif.-based RealtyTrac shows Illinois with 45,780 foreclosure filings in the first quarter of 2010. Filings include default notices, auction-sale notices and bank repossessions.
The filings represent one in every 115 housing units in the state. That rate is nearly 17.5 percent higher than in the first quarter of last year and 9th-highest nationally.
Nevada again had the nation's highest foreclosure rate _ one in every 33 housing units.
Other states with foreclosure rates higher than Illinois were: Arizona, Florida, California, Utah, Michigan, Georgia, Idaho and Colorado.
A noontime rally of Tea Party supporters in Champaign attracted speakers decrying big government - it also attracted a couple dozen counter-protesters.
It's the second year tea party leaders protested at West Side Park on the day tax forms are due. This year, though, a handful of opponents infiltrated the several hundred supporters - it brought out some spirited arguments over health care and other hot-button topics among young people on both sides of the issues, sometimes in loud voices.
Nearby, Mike Balogh (BAY-low) was preparing to speak. He believes the tea party movement - though young and loosely organized - is already impacting national politics.
"A lot of the Congressmen who made the back-room deals -- the Chicago-style politics -- are already seeing the writing on the wall," Balogh said before his speech. "They're saying, 'Oh, I need to spend time with my family, I don't think I'm going to run.' "So yes, I think some of the legislators are genuinely concerned."
Katrina Messmore brought a group of home-schooled children to the rally along with a long paper banner -- one of the boys carrying the banner was dressed in Revolutionary War-period rags with chains on his arms and legs. "We make it a point to teach our kids about what's going on in government, and they kind of get riled up too," Messmore said. "They realize that what they're doing today will affect them in 15, 20 years."
On the other hand, University of Illinois graduate student Laura Godek and several other counter-protesters held up signs along nearby University Avenue, attracting the occasional honk from passing vehicles. When asked if the political landscape is getting too polarized for accomplishment, Godek said there was room for discussion. "I think they're very radically right, but the best you can do is talk and come to some kind of agreement or at least have people thinking. It's worth the effort."
There's a difference of opinion nationwide over whether the Tea Party should remain outside the political structure or become a full-fledged party - some Republican elected officials and candidates mingled with red-white-and-blue-clad participants at Thursday's rally.
Faced with opposition to its plans to take down the neon marquee at the Virginia Theatre, the Champaign Park Board has decided the issue needs more study.
The V-shaped neon marquee has announced shows at the Virginia for 60 years or more. But Champaign park officials say restoration plans have always called for installing a less flashy marquee resembling what was on the Virginia when it opened in 1921. Susanne Skaggs, speaking during the public comment portion of Wednesday night's Champaign Park Board meeting, says the neon marquee distracts from the Virginia's Italian Renaissance façade.
"The marquee, as far as I'm concerned, is nothing but signage" says Skaggs. "And signage, certainly, can be easily changed."
But eight other people told park commissioners the neon marquee is an important part of the Virginia's history. Adam Smith is vice-chairman of the Champaign Historic Preservation Commission, which has formally requested that the neon marquee be preserved. Smith says the marquee has become a local landmark in itself.
"If the neon is lit, you know something is happening that night", says Smith, "you pull over on Park Street, you park and you find out what it is."
Champaign Park Commissioners voted Wednesday night to delay a decision on the Virginia marquee until they can get more information --- including how much it would cost to restore the current neon marquee, which is badly run down.
But the Park Board did approve nearly $600,000 in restoration work to be done this summer on the Virginia lobby, funded by private donations. Park Commissioners hope to do work on the marquee at the same time.
The Champaign County Board discussed proposals Tuesday night to reduce the number of county board seats and possible switch to single-member districts. But board members remained divided on an issue that could be a point of contention for months to come.
How a county board member feels about changing the board's size and district make up seems to depend on how they feel about county board attendance. Republican John Jay says the county board doesn't do a perfect job, but it's certainly not terrible.
"I think that we are representative of the county with the current status of the county board", says Jay. "Everybody seems to be bent on cutting it down, and I'm not sure why."
But Urbana Democrat Brendan McGinty supports a smaller county board. He says having 27 seats on the board leads to uneven performance --- and he says the voters notice it.
"I get comments like 'watching a meeting is like watching grass grow'. Or, 'how do you stand it?'", says McGinty.
A public hearing on the county board makeup drew comments from six people who were divided on the issue. County board members were divided, too. Both the hearing testimony and county board discussion included concerns from rural residents that changes to the board's makeup might reduce rural representation.
But Republican County Board member Greg Knott --- a longtime advocate for a smaller county board --- says reducing the board's size and switching to single-member districts doesn't have to hurt rural residents.
"You know, you can make a case on both circumstances which might be better", says Knott. I did some back-of-the envelope calculations and I can, through whichever way, single or multi, even with a variation in the size of numbers .. you can insure if a map is drawn, that there's equal representation between the rural and the urban areas."
However, Knott said on Wednesday that he's still undecided on the single-member district proposal, and is leaning towards keeping multi-member districts. Backers of the current three-member districts say they promote diversity on the county board and help ensure that county residents can always find a board member in their district who will listen to their concern.
A proposal from Urbana Democrat Steve Beckett addresses support for multi-member districts. Beckett's plan would reduce the county board to 18 members, grouped into nine districts with two members each. Policy Committee Chair Tom Betz is sticking with his proposal for 17 single-member districts. Meanwhile, he says he'll keep the subject on the Policy Committee agenda for the next few meetings.
NOTE: This story has been revised from its broadcast version, which incorrectly stated that County Board Member Knott supports single-member districts.
A planner in Champaign County says response to the 2010 census is slightly better than at this point during the last census two years ago.
But Andrew Levy says census workers will still have to go door-to-door to find and count the 30 percent of people in the county who won't have turned in their forms by the end of this week. Levy says enumerators are already at work in some parts of the county that are usually tougher to count.
"They're focusing in rural areas and they have been out there for quite awhile," Levy said. "In Champaign-Urbana, census workers are concentrated around the U of I campus to make sure that they count the students before they leave for the summer. But they'll be all over Champaign-Urbana in the next few weeks."
Levy says if an enumerator comes to your door, they'll only ask the 10 short questions found on the census form - there's no long census form this year. Census workers are also required to show official identification and will not ask for anyone's social security or credit card number.
A proposal to put a referendum on the ballot in Champaign in support of a citizens police review board fizzled at last (Tuesday) night's annual town meeting.
The proposal's backer, Democratic precinct committeeman Wayne Williams, says he had to leave the City of Champaign town meeting early, due to a family emergency. And afterwards, no one brought his proposals --- including another referendum on healthcare reform --- up for a vote.
The Champaign City Council narrowly rejected a citizens police review board three years ago. But Williams says he continues to believe that a citizens police review board is needed.
"The most important thing about this is that the status quo is not acceptable", says Williams, who also serves on the Champaign County Board of Review. "I don't think it's right that police are allowed to investigate police complaints."
Republican precinct committeeman Bill Glithero also attended the annual town meeting in Champaign --- he estimates the attendance at around 15 or 20 people. Glithero says he thinks some people at the meeting may have supported the referendum proposal, but didn't understand that they were eligible to make a motion for it.
The annual town meetings held in townships across Illinois last (Tuesday) night are the only government meetings in the state where regular voters can take direct action on agenda items. Williams says he's exploring the possibility of a special town meeting to bring up the police review board referendum again.
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