Illinois Public Media News
When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan last week, Michael Bekiares was on the 19th floor of an office building in Tokyo. The building shook for 11 minutes during the quake. Bekiares grew up in Champaign and studied economics at the University of Illinois. He moved to Japan about 13 years ago for a job in finance, and now lives about 200 miles from the earthquake's epicenter. Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers spoke to Bekiares from Tokyo using Skype.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Bekiares)
Champaign voters had the chance on Wednesday March, 16, 2011 to hear from the two candidates running for mayor. Current mayor Jerry Schweighart and political newcomer Don Gerard debated for about an hour at the Champaign Public Library. They addressed a range of issues from the economy to reducing youth violence.
Schweighart touted his efforts during his 12 years as mayor in maintaining a balanced budget without increasing property taxes. He also defended a proposal to cut overnight service in the lobby of the Champaign Police Department. Meanwhile, Gerard criticized those cuts saying they create a public safety risk. He said he would push for a financial audit on all city departments to improve Champaign's economy.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
An apartment building for people with physical disabilities is planned for downtown Champaign.
Eden Supportive Living plans to build the $15 million building at the corner of State and Park, across from Westside Park. The vacant building currently on the site served as a dormitory for Parkland College students, and before that a hotel. Champaign Deputy City Manager Craig Rost said the new nine story will house about 100 adults, aged 22 to 64.
"A supportive living environment is what they're calling it," Rost said. "It's for people that need some assistance --- and they have a physical handicap that requires some level of assistance. But it doesn't have other kinds of care facilities --- it's really a residential project."
Eden Supportive Living already operates two facilities in the Chicago area, with a third Chicago facility in the works. The Champaign project would be their first one downstate. Eden is buying the site from Robeson's Inc., a real estate firm operated by the family that ran Robeson's Department Store for many years in downtown Champaign. Rost said the location is a good one for Eden Supportive Living.
"It's an exciting project," Rost said. "We don't have very many big projects going on right now. So it's garnered a lot of attention. (Champaign is) a good sit-down town, and I think it'll be good for Eden to have that site."
Robeson's Inc. Chairman Eric Robeson says talks have gone on for some time, but his group took to the idea right away.
"From the very beginning, we loved the sound of the project," said Robeson. "We loved what the vision was and what they were going to do. We thought it was going to be a great reuse for the building. Of course, everything's still potential, and nothing's been finalized, but we're very excited that this building, that our family built back in the early 1970's. It's a great reuse for the building."
Eden officials couldn't be reached for contact Wednesday, but press reports indicate the company plans to raise the building, leaving only the foundation. Robeson says he wasn't aware of those plans.
Rost said the Champaign City Council will be asked to vote this spring on a development agreement to lease out parking for the new building --- but Eden is not asking for any financial assistance from the city. The company hopes to have the project open for residents in spring of 2012.
(Design courtesy of Eden Supportive Living)
As Japanese officials scramble to stabilize nuclear reactors following last week's earthquake and tsunami, the focus has also shifted on the safety of nuclear power plants in the United States.
James Stubbins, head of nuclear engineering at the U of I, said of Illinois' 11 reactors, six are boiling water reactors similar to ones affected by the devastation in Japan. One is about 40 miles away from Urbana in Clinton. Stubbins said there is no reason to be concerned about the stability of these reactors because it is unlikely they will be faced with a tsunami, like the one in Japan.
"When we understand better what happened in Japan," Stubbins said. "We'll assess what really led to the problems and upgrade systems where necessary or upgrade methodologies where necessary to ensure that similar kinds of things can't happen here."
Stubbins said because the Clinton reactor is younger than those affected by the tsunami, it has a more up to date safety system in place.
In a recent New York Times editorial, David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists writes that the primary challenge for the Japanese reactors was losing their normal and back-up power supplies.
"The reactors were designed to cope with this situation for only eight hours, assuming that normal or back-up power would be restored within that time," Lochbaum said. "But the accident failed to follow that script, leading to serious problems cooling the reactor cores."
Lochbaum said "the one-two punch" from an earthquake and tsunami disabled numerous emergency systems.
According to Lochbaum, most reactors in the U.S. are designed to cope with power outages lasting only four hours. He said following the situation in Japan, measures should be taken to increase the chances of restoring power within the "assumed time period or providing better cooling options when that time runs out."
He noted that the incident in Japan is a reminder of the need to revisit emergency plans to make sure people are protected when a disaster hits.
Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said he has a solution to fund the state's $31 billion construction plan. The project was supposed to begin as soon as the weather would allow, but it is currently tied up in the court system.
Cullerton said the state could raise funds by adding one dollar on to each pack of cigarettes sold in the state.
"This is money that is going to the capital projects, projects that the Republicans have all benefited from throughout the state. They see the unemployment rate drop. They want to continue those projects and this is how we fund it," Cullerton said.
Cullerton pitched his idea to a road builders meeting in Springfield. The group would directly benefit from more highway construction.
The original infrastructure plan relies heavily on controversial funding sources like video poker and an expansion of the state's lottery.
Some lawmakers say they won't support a cigarette tax hike because they think it would drive people to neighboring states to make purchases.
(Photo courtesy by Geierunited/Wikimedia Commons)
Former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge is scheduled to report to prison Wednesday. He was found guilty of lying about the torture of suspects in police custody.
The 63-year-old Burge is set to report to a prison in North Carolina; the same prison that holds Bernard Madoff, infamous for organizing a Ponzi scheme.
A federal judge sentenced Burge to 4 1/2 years behind bars earlier this year. A jury found him guilty of lying to federal officials about whether he knew police officers in his district were torturing suspects.
Burge ran District Two of the police department in the 1970s and 80s. Since then, the City of Chicago has been sued by several suspects who were allegedly tortured and spent years - even decades - behind bars. Some of them have been exonerated.
Meantime, Burge is still collecting his police pension. The Illinois Attorney General's office has sued to cut off his $3,000 monthly retirement payments.
Champaign City Council members have unanimously rejected the use of pension obligation bonds as a way to avoid service cuts during tight financial times.
Council members sided with administrators, deciding that using a low-interest loan to fund police and fire pensions carried too much uncertainty. City Finance Director Richard Schnuer said the investment risk was just too high. Council member Deb Frank Feinen said she made up her mind after reading a memo from Schnuer, and doing a quick web search on the bonds.
"When our financial adviser sits before us and talks about governments being risk averse, he's right, and there's a reason for it," Feinen said. "We're not individuals. I'm not playing with my home finances. Instead, I have a wider obligation not to take the easy way out."
Schuner also said issuing the bonds could affect Champaign's triple-A credit rating, making it harder for the city to issue debt in the future. Council member Tom Bruno said the city should only consider such an option if it wants to place today's financial burden on future generations.
"This is the year we should be feeling the pain," Bruno said. "Because this is the year that the recession has really hit the municipalities with a loss of revenues. I wish it wasn't a painful year. But if there's going to be painful years, maybe it ought to be this year, and not when my kids are my age."
Council member Mike LaDue said the city has managed its debt conservatively in the height of a recession. And he said those kinds of decisions, and not the issuing of the pension bonds, have allowed the city to take on a project like drainage improvements along John Street, where several homes have experienced flooding.
Champaign Mayoral Candidate Don Gerard said the pension obligation bonds would have been an option had Schnuer started researching the idea about 10 months earlier, when interest rates were about 2-percent.
"This will go right down the chute, but it's a shame that a year ago this wasn't looked at," Gerard said. "Because a year ago, it could have been a great opportunity. And I think the budget is something that we've been looking at for two years. These type of options should have been looked at a year ago. I'm very disappointed that they weren't."
The plan to use the bonds lost 8-0, but Mayor Jerry Schweighart said the discussion will likely go on for one more night. He and Gerard will debate one another Wednesday evening.
The debate, organized by the Junior League of Champaign-Urbana, begins at 6:30 at the Champaign Public Library.
An initiative in Indiana to provide incentives for companies to invest in clean energy, including nuclear power, is stalling because of recent events in Japan.
The incentives could have lead to the building of Indiana's first nuclear power plant.
But any such plans may have to wait.
Indiana Senate President David Long (R-Fort Wayne) says his state will need additional sources of energy in the coming years.
But Long says the earthquake in Japan that caused extensive damage to a nuclear plant there is forcing more review of Senate Bill 251.
"We need to take a step back, try to understand how this happened, what the circumstances were, was it human error, was it all caused by the natural disaster? If so, what part of it, was it the tsunami, was it the earthquake," Long says. "We don't have the answers to that right now, and we need to have some answers."
Past nuclear attempts in Indiana included the building of a nuclear power plant in Porter County.
Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) proposed building the Bailly Nuclear 1 Power Plant in the 1970s and 1980s along Lake Michigan.
But opponents and the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island forced NIPSCO to scrap its plans just two years later.
Indiana continues to need additional sources of energy since a study group told state legislators that the state will likely need 30 percent more electricity by 2015.
This at a time when the Obama administration plans to clamp down on coal-fired power plants to reduce pollution.
Indiana gets most of its energy from coal.
Officials at the Mitsubishi Motors North America plant in central Illinois say they have enough parts to keep making cars for another two weeks but they're awaiting word on whether Japan's massive earthquake and tsunami could lead to production disruptions.
Mitsubishi Motors North America spokesman Dan Irvin told The (Bloomington) Pantagraph that the production hubs of the firm's parent company, Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Motors, weren't affected by the disaster.
But Irvin says the North American subsidiary is still waiting for updates from companies that supply some parts for use at the plant in Normal.
The plant produces about 34,000 vehicles a year and employs more than 1,000 people.
University of Illinois Trustees could postpone their decision next week on constructing a wind turbine on the Urbana campus.
Audit and Budget Committee chair Ed McMillan said it is likely the U of I will seek another extension of the grant covering $2-million of the project. Trustees will meet March 23 on the Springfield campus. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing addressed the committee Monday, citing citizen concerns about noise pollution and shadows. She said the U of I has failed to address those areas, and meet with the public.
"The city does support alternative energy, but these things have to be very carefully placed," Prussing said. "And this is in violation right now of the Urbana wind turbine ordinance, and we'd like to see it corrected so it would be in a good place. And we're also concerned about the total cost."
Cost for the turbine project exceed $5-million. The head of a University of Illinois Student group pushing for turbine construction says delaying the project by a few more months, after two prior extensions, won't be a large setback. Student Sustainability Committee Chair Suhail Barot predicts the turbine will remain at its current site, by the U of I's South Farms.
"I think the university's position is correct in terms of its zoning," he said. "And it terms of the overall concerns, I think issues outstanding will be resolved."
Barot said students have more doubled their financial commitment to the project through sustainability fees, and not completing the turbine soon jeopardizes losing the grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. He said the U of I should feel 'morally responsible' for putting up the turbine.
Prussing said the university has also failed to consider wear and tear to township roads from the project, and suggests the U of I consider investing in an existing wind farm.
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