Tom's Mailbag May 23, 2014

Tom's Mailbag May 23, 2014

You may recall that last week there was a serious dearth of mailbag questions and I was in danger of being placed on an all-gruel diet by the master of The News-Gazette workhouse, Jim Rossow.

Thankfully, readers, you responded with a broad assortment of questions and comments, and the mailbag was again full this week. I appreciate your kindness. 

So here we go ...


City flags for Champaign, Urbana

“Have the cities of Urbana and Champaign ever considered adopting a municipal flag? If the city of Springfield has one, don’t you think we should here too?”


What a grand idea!

According to that flawless source of information, Wikipedia, it appears that only Springfield and Chicago in Illinois have municipal flags. 

As fourth-graders at St. Domitilla School, we learned all about Chicago history and its city flag which includes two light blue horizontal bars (one representing Lake Michigan and the north branch of the Chicago River and the other representing the river’s south branch), plus two red stars (one each for the 1893 and 1933 world’s fairs, one for the Chicago Fire and one for the Fort Dearborn). 

If the Cubs ever win the World Series I’m sure they’ll add a fifth star, unless the world blows up first.

Springfield’s flag is understated, with no reference to its most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln.

Perhaps Urbana’s flag could include Lincoln, who practiced law there, or a bike heading down a bicycle lane, or a farmer’s market, or a woman riding a bike to the farmer’s market wearing Birkenstocks.

I suppose a Champaign flag might include the Assembly Hall, the Kraft Foods plant, a row of stoplights along Prospect Avenue and its art deco City Building.

Those are my ideas. 

How about sending me yours and we’ll try to have some fun, designing flags incorporating some of them for both Champaign and Urbana.


Boil orders

“Tom, the Sangamon Valley Water District, which serves a population of 4,110 residents, issued a boil order late Wednesday morning.  My question is, how quickly is a drinking water supplier obligated to notify customers of a potential health threat and boil order?  The water pressure dropped to just a trickle around 10 p.m. Tuesday night, and the telephone at the SVWD ran busy for over an hour that evening, and I was shocked they did not notify customers more quickly of the threat to the drinking water.”


According to Kim Biggs, a spokeswoman for the Illinois EPA, water suppliers are to obligated to provide the “immediate issuance” of a boil order in the case of low water pressure. She said she would forward your complaint to officials in the EPA’s bureau of water.


Hospital tax exemption vote

“With all the complaining (Urbana) Mayor Prussing does about the Carle tax exemption I was wondering if there is an easy way to find out how our area reps voted for whatever the bill was that created the exemption? I don’t think I have ever seen it mentioned anywhere. Thanks!!”


Senate Bill 2194, which passed both houses of the Legislature in the last days of the 2012 spring session, was approved by the Senate 31-27. Among area senators at the time, Mike Frerichs, Bill Brady, Shane Cultra, Dale Righter and Kyle McCarter all voted no.

In the House Reps. Naomi Jakobsson and Chapin Rose voted yes, while Reps. Jason Barickman, Adam Brown, Brad Halbrook, Chad Hays and Bill Mitchell voted no.


Three questions for the price of one

“Hey, Tom, because inquiring minds want to know ... and it would be a shame for your editor to be on your case two weeks in a row, a couple of questions:

1) Can you tell us what’s going on with all of the (huge) new power poles just east of the railroad tracks along South Neil/Dunlap/Rt. 45?  Are they replacing the older poles that have always been west of the tracks, and/or is this a whole new project? I’ve also noticed some new poles off in the distance, south of Curtis Road, in south/southwest Champaign near Mattis. Just curious about whether this is regular maintenance, or connected to some bigger project or expansion of service.”



This is part of a project that Ameren announced five years ago that would provide improved service to the southwest part of the University of Illinois campus, particularly the UI’s Blue Waters supercomputing center. Ameren is building a 138-kilovolt transmission line connecting the Bondville and southwest campus substations. 

“Based on the potential for cascading outages and voltage collapse due to outages of transmission lines and transformers in the Champaign area, system reinforcements are needed by the summer of 2015,” Ameren said. “Power flow simulations indicate that the simultaneous loss of various pairs of transmission elements in the area will lead to cascading outages and/or voltage collapse. Under these conditions, over 500 megawatt of load service in the Champaign area will be dropped. This amount exceeds the 300 MW threshold prescribed by the Ameren Transmission Planning Criteria.”

The new transmission line is projected to be in service by next June.


“2) Another question has to do with the former Champaign Southwest Mass Transit District and (former Champaign County Board member) Scott Tapley’s thoughts on how things unfolded in the years after he moved from Champaign. I’ve never been a resident of that part of town, so I don’t have an axe to grind. I’ve simply wondered from time to time if he thinks, in retrospect, it was worth the neighborhood’s time, money and effort that went into the fight against (Champaign-Urbana) MTD’s expansion.”


I emailed Tapley, now a financial adviser with IPI Wealth Management in the South Bend, Ind., area. He was nice enough to provide a full response about the Champaign Southwest district, which was created by referendum in 2006 but officially was dissolved this year with a vote of the Champaign County Board ...


“Good to hear from you! Let me start with a little history.

“The birth of the CSWMTD was an incredible bipartisan grass roots effort that practically organized itself after I told one resident of Lincolnshire about a provision in the Illinois Local Mass Transit District Act allowing creation of a new mass transit district by petition/referendum.

“Word spread so fast after that initial Friday afternoon conversation with a single voter that the 500 signatures needed to put a referendum on the

ballot had already been obtained (without me even collecting any signatures myself) before the public announcement occurred the following Monday morning.

“The referenda to create the district and fund the lawsuit passed with 80 percent and 70 percent respectively — almost unheard-of bipartisan support galvanized by the extreme, undemocratic and arrogant public positions taken by (MTD director) Bill Volk, (former MTD board chair) George Friedman and other MTD officials.

“I have never been involved in any other political movement in which people offered so much unsolicited help. I was flooded with calls from people I didn’t know wanting to volunteer to circulate petitions, donate money, round up other volunteers/donors, put out yard signs, etc. — before the campaign was publicly launched. Usually, campaigning for anything make you

feel like a beggar pleading for any help you can scrounge up; this was distinctly different. Even people living outside the CSWMTD who had felt defenseless when the C-U MTD force-annexed their property were offering unsolicited donations because of ‘the principle of the matter.’

“Many people felt intensely and emotionally that their constitutional rights were being violated by unelected bureaucrats abusing their power, and an overwhelming majority of affected voters wanted their day in court and were willing to pay for that privilege. I’m glad I was able to find a democratic outlet for those voters.

“In regard to how things unfolded after the district was created, if I were on the CSWMTD board I believe I would have been among the earliest to call for dissolution of the district after the Supreme Court ruled against its interests. But the fact that the district may have remained in existence longer than necessary/desirable does not make me regret being part of the unique chapter in local politics that created it.”


3) Criticism of Mayor Prussing seems to be mounting, but it’s hard for me to tell whether it’s just a relative few voices that are getting louder or if the tide of public opinion has turned. What’s your take on things?  And if you think she’s vulnerable (or will choose not to run) in the next election, who are some of the likely candidates?


I think there is a lot of unhappiness in Urbana over a number of issues: high taxes, the mayor’s criticism of Carle, bicycle lanes, Windsor Road. She has three more years on her term and while I have no inside information, I suspect she won’t be running again in 2017. As for who would succeed her, I don’t know who would want the job. Urbana, not unlike the state of Illinois, has a lot of problems, most of them financial.


Olympian Drive

“Last week, The News-Gazette reported that the city of Urbana has funds to extend Olympian Drive: ‘Despite the ongoing feud, Urbana will see some major capital projects. The plan for next year includes $7.1 million for the construction of Olympian Drive in north Urbana ...’

“Does this mean that the ‘road to nowhere’ is a done deal? How’d that happen?”


Yes, it is a done deal and construction will begin this summer.

The last impediment to the project had been approval from the Illinois Commerce Commission to provide $7.8 million for a bridge carrying Olympian over the Illinois Central tracks. That approval came in February.

Champaign County Engineer Jeff Blue had predicted that construction bids for the project would be favorable because contractors are looking for work. 

He was right. The Illinois Department of Transportation recently bid out the project and unofficial results were encouraging. Blue said the engineer estimate for the project was about $9 million, and that of the four bids received every one was under $7.5 million.

Blue said he believed the state would have a contract with the low bidder by July and that construction would begin soon after that.


Gerard campaign funds

“I’m wondering if you find (Champaign Mayor) Don Gerard hypocritical with his new political message.  On a local online magazine, he claimed, ‘My main priority is keeping Champaign on the right track; not raising campaign funds.’ Within days, he was promoting his fundraiser on his Facebook page. He is also trying to suggest that he has not been focused on fundraising while the truth is that he launched his fundraising campaign for re-election within months after being elected the first time, with actual fundraisers and a letter-writing campaign, but was ultimately distracted by some highly publicized personal matters. Last but not least, his Facebook page claims his opponents want to ‘buy back the mayor’s office.’ How can he say that with a straight face when the majority of his campaign funds thus far have come from a single big money contributor?  I think you are doing a great job with the mailbag and look forward to your thoughts.”


Thanks for your kind words. The mayor’s remarks are what candidates say when they know they’re going to be out-raised and out-spent. You’ll be hearing the same song from Gov. Pat Quinn later this year when Bruce Rauner’s campaign money machine really turns up the heat.

Gerard knows that at least two of his potential opponents, Deb Feinen and Joe Petry, will raise more money than he’ll be able to. So he’s going to campaign as the regular guy who is looking out for the regular voters, not the country club set. Feinen and Petry will get the big givers in Champaign, leaving Gerard and the fourth candidate, Karen Foster, to runb low-budget campaigns dependent on name recognition, shoe leather and organization.


Weedy garden

“To help in the saving your job:  My spouse and I visited the UI Arboretum Miles C. Hartley Selections Garden last week. Were it was not bare soil, it had more weeds than my back yard.  (I am talking about the “maze area,” not the Idea Garden, which was in good shape.)


Do not fear, the Hartley Selections Garden will be planted in the next couple of weeks, a UI staffer said. The normal routine is to begin planting the flower garden on South Lincoln Avenue — which is now in its 20th year — in the first or second week of June. It should be at its peak in early July. The digging and planting is done by a small crew, she said, made up of staff mostly from the UI crop sciences and natural resources and environmental sciences departments.


Groninger memorial

“I was friends with the journalist Bill Groninger, who was a fixture at the C-U Courier, and who passed in the mid-1980s. It’s a shame that Google barely has any hits on his name. I remember that there was a memorial plaque in downtown Urbana that bore his name. I thought it was across the street from the Urbana Free Library, but I haven’t been able to find a trace of it in several years. Do you know what happened to it?”


I’ve looked around but was unable to find any memorial to Groninger, who I remember from my beginning reporter days around here. If there was any plaque to Bill I’d think it would have been at the southwest corner of Main Street and Broadway Avenue on what once was a gravel parking lot and is now the city-owned parking deck. That was across the street from Groninger’s second floor apartment, and a site that Groninger used to joke about in his Courier columns.


Woeful Cubs

“Other than Junior Lake, outfielders for the Chicago Cubs have zero (O) home runs this season. Should the Ricketts family spend more money on free agents for the lowly North Siders, or funnel that money into brother Pete’s bid for governor of Nebraska?

“At this point, should they just give tickets to Wrigley away, so it isn’t quite so embarrassing when the camera pans the crowd and all you see are empty seats?”


I didn’t know that stat until you mentioned it, although the Cubs’ web site says that Lake has 5 home runs and stud hitter Justin Ruggiano (.229 batting average with 13 strikeouts in 35 at-bats) also had one tater, although Ruggiano is now in the minors.

Agreed, the Cubs stink. They’re so bad that fans don’t even turn up to see them play the mighty Yankees at home.

I wish they’d put some of the family fortunes into Wrigley Field and a reasonably decent team, rather than into the campaign of a guy endorsed by Sarah Palin who won a six-way Republican primary with 26.5 percent of the vote. No offense to Nebraskans, including Bob Asmussen, but has any governor of Nebraska besides Bob Kerrey gone onto to any success after serving in Lincoln?

So, put that money into the Cubs, their scouts, their farm system and their fans so we can add that star to the Chicago flag.

Also, there is a Junior Lake. It’s in Penobscot County, Maine, and it has good fishing including lake perch. Get me there and I’m in ...


Concerns about interstate bridge 

“Recently, I was driving north on I-57, underneath the Bradley Street overpass, when I noticed the poor condition of this overpass. Underneath on both sides of the overpass there are large chunks of cement missing. Couple this with the large amount of damage the road surface on top of the overpass endured this last winter, I’m concerned about its structural integrity. 

“The growing area of Sawgrass and Boulder Ridge neighborhoods and the new Sunset Ridge Park has created a large amount of foot traffic over the Bradley overpass as well.  Over the last year the city has been working on the Windsor overpass for good reason. The addition of the YMCA and the apartments has added considerable traffic to this overpass, resulting in pedestrian walks on both sides of the overpass. I believe the Bradley overpass needs this enhancement as well. Thank you.”


I’ve passed your concerns onto officials at the Illinois Department of Transportation. I hope we hear back from them in time for next week’s mailbag.


Thanks, folks, for getting me out of the doghouse and off the gruel diet. Have a safe, peaceful holiday weekend and remember those who died in the service of this great country.

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rsp wrote on May 23, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Two comments about Scott Tapley. He states that they had people practically begging them to take donations to use in their legal battle. Why not just use that instead of double taxing people? Second, this tired mantra about unelected officials gone mad, you know the ones appointed by the Champaign County Board. The same Champaign County Board who appointed the officials to the SWMTD. They also appoint people to the Mental Health Board, and a lot of other boards. How does that happen? People who care apply. Then the people you voted for on the County Board pick the most qualified.

alabaster jones 71 wrote on May 24, 2014 at 2:05 am
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We could use this municipal flag idea for other Illinois towns as well.

Decatur's flag would be a factory with noxious fumes rising from it.  Danville's would be a crack house.  Mattoon's could be a meth lab.  Springfield should change theirs to a giant bag of bribe money, to represent the fine politicians who do business there.