The Daily Illini

Illinois’ financial crisis troubles Champaign

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cutbacks, budget problems and funding concerns are headlining the Champaign City Council’s agenda this fall.
“We’re in such bad shape. I don’t understand how we’re going to do it without raising taxes,” said Tom Bruno, council member-at-large.

Bruno said that a combination of major cuts and probably some tax increases are in Champaign’s future. This may mean, Bruno said, that while Champaign residents will expect to receive the same services they have grown accustomed to, diminishing resources might make this impossible.

Many of the budget concerns stem from increasing financial turmoil in the Illinois government.

As the state seeks to balance its own budget, it may cut the amount of revenue that comes to the cities from income taxes and motor fuel taxes.

”If they cut state income tax and motor fuel tax, it could cost the city up to $1.7 million,” said Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart.

Schweighart, a Republican, said that the November gubernatorial election will be critical because the state needs to find someone who can balance the budget without cutting revenue to the cities.

Bruno said that Champaign has been able to handle the past few years because some of these financial constraints were anticipated. Nevertheless, he said this is still a painful time for the city.

“Either we cut back on police and fire and maintain infrastructure or we increase people’s tax rates to get the same tax revenue,” Bruno said.

Sales tax is the city’s highest form of revenue and has been on the decline for some time now.

Schweighart said that usually the city likes to see a 3 percent increase in the sales tax every year, but currently the sales tax is regressing.

He also said there will be minimal pay raises this year. The city has to honor the pay raises in the contracts of union workers, but Schweighart said the workers will have to settle for less than originally agreed to. Otherwise, there will be layoffs, he added.

Infrastructure changes

Funding for some major construction projects, many of which are already underway or are beginning soon, is also being discussed amid the city’s concerns that it may have to cut back on services in the coming year.

“The budget will be the critical issue,” Schweighart said. “If you have no money to oerate then of course you will have less projects.”

Despite its financial woes, the city has been able to tackle some projects. On August 10, council members voted to apply for a grant that would fund a bicycle and pedestrian pathway along Windsor Road, west of Duncan Road.

Marci Dodds, council member for District 4, said that the pathway would encourage sharing among pedestrians and drivers.

Bruno said that despite financial constraints, he would like this project, entitled “Complete Street,” to be finished.

The city has also engaged in a long term plan to deal with stormwater issues, Bruno said. The project is called the Boneyard Creek master plan.

Flooding is not a new issue in Champaign and has been particularly problematic in the residential area near West John Street and West Washington Street.

“Drainage has historically been the biggest problem here for over a hundred years; it’s terribly expensive but we’ve made it a priority,” District 2 Council Member Michael LaDue said.

On June 15, the council approved the construction of the beginning phase of the John Street drainage improvement project.

The city is currently waiting for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, or IEPA, to approve eligibility for loans and grants to fund the construction.

She said that greater cooperation among local governments may be a way to keep city costs down. Dodds said that if other local governments, like Savoy, contract with each other, it may not be necessary to finance the same services in every city. Dodds cited the example of a crime unit, and questioned whether every city really needed its own unit to manage.

The council members seem to agree on one thing: Finances in Champaign are going to feel a lot tighter this year.

“The idea right now is to keep breathing,” Schweighart said.