Tom's Mailbag June 27, 2014

Tom's Mailbag June 27, 2014

Plenty of good comments and questions in this week's mailbag concerning Armory Avenue repaving, video gambling, Champaign school district polling, doubts about MTD ridership numbers, the old Danville Dodgers and the integration of baseball, the "new" News-Gazette and sports longshots.

(Got a question for Tom? Ask here.)

Armory Avenue repairs

"It appears Armory Street along the golf course is being repaved with private funds. Do you have any information about policies and laws in this situation? In other words, if I want a yellow dashed line painted down my street, can I pay a private company to do that? How about if I want a stop sign? I am baffled by how this is OK with the city.

"On a side note, this work was not listed in the N-G's road closure list. There were some traffic issues and some confusion along Prospect and Armory due to this omission. I guess if private funds are involved, traffic can be disrupted?"

The Champaign City Council voted to authorize accepting the donated repaving of Armory Avenue — by Liautaud Development Group LLC — at a meeting earlier this month. In addition to Armory, portions of Knollwood Drive and Fox Drive in Champaign also will get a new pavement with the work, which has an estimated value of $500,000, done by Open Road Paving Company.

Liautaud Development Group's CEO is James Liautaud, the founder and CEO of the Jimmy John's sandwich shop franchise.

A memo to the city council from City Manager Dorothy David included these observations about the road work:

"The pavements are deteriorated but the city has other pavements that are worse. City staff annually prepares a three-year street rehabilitation plan. The plan identifies the streets that will be rehabilitated based on available funding for each of the next three years. The last three-year plan was 2014-2016. The city's three-year plan is updated each spring. The 2014 update has been started.

"Based on current pavement condition when compared to other city streets, none of the streets listed in the proposal are listed for rehabilitation in the current three-year plan. Based on the same criteria, it also appears none of these pavements would be listed for improvement in the updated 2015-17 plan.

"Jimmy John's corporate offices are located at the intersection of Fox and Knollwood. Jimmy John's owner lives on Armory."

Champaign's deputy mayor — and at-large council member — Tom Bruno defended the council's approval of the donation.

"If there already were yellow-striped lines on the pavement and they became faded and you didn't think it looked nice and you wanted to pay us to put a fresh coat of paint on them, I'd welcome that and celebrate it and thank the person at the next city council meeting," said Bruno. "On the other hand if there weren't yellow stripes painted on the street and you wanted to change the traffic markings, I think that would be inappropriate. The same thing with the stop signs. People can't buy a different traffic regulation.

"But we already had a paved street there, and it wasn't nice enough for one of the owners and they wanted to pay to put a fresh coat of blacktop, the city would be foolish to reject that."

The work has no impact on the city budget, Bruno noted.

"I think I pointed out at the time that this was done," he said, "that there's a stone plaque inside the city building, thanking the guy who in the 1880s donated the land upon which the City Building sits. So there's a long history of philanthropy here. (Donor) Jack Richmond has his name on the courthouse bell tower. This Jimmy John thing, I'm sure he has more money than God and he wants the street in front of his house to look nice, and it would be a kick in the teeth to say to somebody like that, 'No, we can't do that,' or, 'Some other street is in more dire need.'"

One more thing, Bruno said, "There's not going to be a sign out here that says that Jimmy John paid to repave this street. He just wants a nice street in front of his house and I'm just glad he lives in our community. I'm glad he's not giving this money to some town in Florida and relocating."

Champaign schools polling

"I was hoping you could clear up what is going on with the public polling being done by the Champaign school district, and being paid for by the taxpayers, since I know you have a lot of experience studying and analyzing polls.

"The News-Gazette reported on 5/20 that the school district was conducting a public poll of 400 registered voters in the school district in regard to their preference to a school site. Then, the NG reported on 6/7 that the school district wanted to extend the polling into June to "refine the questions based on preliminary results from the telephone poll of approximately 400 school district residents last month".

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but a poll cannot be 'extended' with 'refined questions.' That's just a new poll. My first question is, do you agree with me that the June poll is simply a new poll and not an extension of a preliminary poll done in May?

"Also, according to the school district, they didn't even obtain the results from the first poll from the polling company, except over the phone. Can you explain why in the world the school district would have the taxpayers pay for a poll and then not even obtain the results or release them to the public?

"I can understand how poorly written poll questions could result in an unscientific result — and would necessitate a new poll. If that occurred, the need to redo the poll would be on the professional pollsters, not the school district.

"I also know, though, that sometimes there is a desire to obtain a certain result from a poll, regardless of whether it is scientific, for public relations purposes. If that is what occurred, it would be on the school district, not the pollsters.

"My final question would be, did the polling company make the school district pay for the second June poll? If so, is that any indication to you that the school district just didn't like the poll results and decided to 'refine' the questions, rather than a screw-up by the pollster?"

You're apparently going to get answers to all — well, maybe most — of your questions at Monday evening's special school board meeting (6 p.m. at the Mellon Building).

"All phone survey questions and results will be available at Monday's board meeting, which all community members are invited to attend," said Stephanie Stuart, the community relations coordinator for the school district.

The meeting also will include a presentation of the information from Patron Insight, the Stilwell, Kansas, firm that conducted the survey, she said.

"Two different groups of 400 registered voters participated in the survey, and questions/results from both of those phases will be presented and available. Questions were developed in partnership with the district and Patron Insight, and the decision was made jointly to refine the questions. Questions were refined to ask about certain topics in more detail and provide clarity," Stuart said.

The polling, including the refined questioning, is included in the contract for the school district's architects, Gorski Reifsteck/DLR Group. The total cost of their services, Stuart said, is $120,000.

Video gambling

"Tom, thank you for the good story about video gambling. Our organization has been tracking the losses in 25 communities, including Champaign, since video gambling became operational in Illinois. Listed below are the top 10 cities with the most losses!

ROCKFORD - $18,110,853

SPRINGFIELD - $17,693,422

LOVES PARK - $9,675,086

DECATUR - $9,350,632

BLOOMINGTON - $9,275,902

WAUKEGAN - $7,130,034

JOLIET - $5,754,829

SANGAMON COUNTY - $5,362,476

OAK LAWN - $5,237,717

CHAMPAIGN - $5,147,947

Anita Bedell, Illinois Church Action on Alcohol & Addiction Problems. Springfield"

Ms. Bedell — a dedicated fighter in the legislative halls in Springfield, testifying at virtually every legislative committee hearing about the hazards of gambling — is referring to my column last Sunday about Lacey's Place in Champaign, an enormously successful "boutique" video gambling business in north Champaign that recorded more than $1 million in video gaming activity in May.

Her calculations show that gamblers have lost more than $5 million at the 34 or so places (148 video gaming terminals) in Champaign since video gambling began in Illinois. For example, in May, of the more than $1 million played at Lacey's, more than $65,507 was reported as "net wagering activity" or losses by gamblers. Citywide in May the total was $612,242.

Two other readers responded to a question about whether they favored casino or video gambling:

"The video gaming is fun ... I go to the recently opened one, in Savoy, next to Schnucks, called Emma's. Very nice people work there. Again, five slot machines with multiple games to choose from: snacks, pop, coffee are offered free of charge. Sandwiches also available. A nice one to check out."

and ...


News-Gazette "bugs"

"Tom, On the first day of the new 'reduced-in-size' New-Gazette, the photos were all black and white. Did the printers run out of colored ink? Or is there some other reason for the B&W photos?"

Bob Brown, The News-Gazette's pressroom foreman, explained why about half the papers printed that first day of the reduced-width paper had color while others didn't.

"While we were changing the press to the new size we had most of our printing unit apart. We thought the color tower was ready to go but 18,000 papers into the run we had electrical problems. Normally we would have moved most of the color pages to the older color units. But since they were not ready for the new size yet, we were forced to cancel all color for the remainder of the run.

"The next night we had a different problem on the same color tower, but the older units were now ready."

MTD ridership numbers questioned

"Something seems fishy with MTD's math. I can't believe one million-plus riders are using the service every month. There aren't enough people in C-U. Are they counting people who wait three stops before getting off the bus three times?

This question apparently was prompted by a story earlier this week that reported that the MTD's ridership for the year ending June 30 already has set an annual record. After reporting 12,028,172 passengers for the year that ended June 30, 2013, the MTD passed the 13 million riders mark on June 16 and appears to be headed for a total annual ridership of about 13.2 million passengers. About 73 percent of those are UI students who ride "free" with passes that they pay for with student fees.

Jan Kijowski, the marketing manager at the MTD, explained how passenger counts are done on MTD buses.

"MTD riders are counted automatically with Automatic Passenger Counters (APCs) at each door. A curtain made up of four lasers generates a signature each time a movement is detected. Algorithms discern whether the passenger was boarding or alighting. Every single person who boards/alights is counted. The distance that they ride is irrelevant. MTD did not provide rides to 13 million plus different people in FY2014. Most MTD riders take trips on MTD five or more times each week.

"The first APCs were installed in 2003 and the system was fine-tuned through 2007. In the interim, Operators continued to manually count riders. Ironically, the manual counts were bit inflated; when we transitioned to exclusively using the automatically-generated data, ridership data dipped.

"The APCs' counts are manually verified on randomly selected routes about once a week. Staff teams ride a route, manually count boardings and alightings, and then planning staff compare that to the automatically-generated numbers to verify accuracy."

The Danville Dodgers and the Newcombe, Campanella story

"Did you know the Danville Dodgers, a former affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, turned down the chance to have Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella play minor league ball there during the integration of 'organized baseball?' How different history could have been."

It's an interesting observation, but I don't see how it would have changed history.

Plus, the story about Danville having turned down Newcombe and Campanella is disputed in Charlie Bevis' book about the history of the old New England League. That's where Newcombe and Campanella became the first black players to play in the U.S. minor leagues — for the Nashau (N.H.) Dodgers — in 1946.

Bevis called the story of Danville's snub of black ballplayers "a ruse" for Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey's plan to have Nashua in his team's farm system.

"Why all the secrecy?" he wrote. "Rickey did not want to arose suspicion that he had a plan for minimizing the distractions so that black players could develop within the all-Caucasian system of Organized Baseball."

Nashua was considered more out of the way and racially tolerant.

Elsewhere in his book, though, Bevis recounts other stories that say that Newcombe and Campanella were "not wanted" in Danville in 1946, and that both the team and the Three-I League — of which Danville was a member — were not ready for black players.

Still, a year later the Brooklyn Dodgers played an exhibition game in Danville on June 20, and Robinson — then in his first year in the majors — was on the field with the parent club. More than 6,000 attended the game.

Longshot teams

"What do you think is more likely to happen this year: The USA wins the World Cup? The Cubs win the World Series?"

Oddsmakers say the USA is an 80:1 shot to win the World Cup.

The mighty Cubs — 13-11 in June, the same record as the St. Louis Cardinals — are given a 6.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, although their chances of winning the World Series are considerably longer. Still, that's much better than I would have expected from this team at this point in the season. Most important, they have a better chance of making the playoffs than the White Sox (3.1 percent). I guess a USA victory in the World Cup is a slightly better bet, but I wouldn't put much money down on either team.

From leftover question about favored restaurants

"Favorite place to eat you ask? Hurraches Moreleon at Washington and Philo in Urbana. Simply amazing and friendly."

"The best restaurant: Golden Harbor in Royal Plaza."

"Cheese and Crackers in Old Farm — phenomenal fish and shellfish."

Thanks for all the input. Keep the questions coming, but make sure they come early. Next week is a short one and the mailbag will close a day earlier than usual.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for, your chance to win two free tickets to the July 12 CUBS Night game at Danville Stadium between the Danville Dans and Hannibal Cavemen. The first person to email me ( the correct answer to this question is the winner:

What former Danville Dodger, previously known for his hitting, once made a celebrated catch as an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs?

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pattsi wrote on June 28, 2014 at 2:06 pm

There have been some interesting comments about the privatizing of several public streets approved by the Champaign city council. I happen to live in the Clark Park area and know it well. This bad street is/was not in poor condition. I live on one of the streets that all marathon runners traverse. The street is in such bad condition that neighbors make signs on the street warning the runners about pot holes and bumps that might cause injuries. So from the perspective of community PR and the CVB, this street ought to have been repaved when the marathon began. Later this summer this will happen.
Those of us in the Clark Park area have encountered the economic robustness along Armory when the street lighting project was being discussed/done. Note that the street lights along Armory are different than the rest of the area because those on Armory could afford the extra cost. These lights illuminate the sidewalk and street; whereas the others only illuminate the street.
So the question becomes equity. The comments made are that there is no cost to the city since a private citizen is footing the bill. But there is cost in that the road crews have been diverted away from other projects to attend to one that is now at the top of the list when it was originally scheduled for several years away. The city council has now set a precedent with the vote of approval. How will this affect the lower income sections of the community who can not pay to change position in the planned work stream?
This is a policy decision that just might belong to the folks that make up the policy and technical committees of CUUATS.

I'm Lovin' It wrote on June 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm

This sets a bad precedent. Can I fund a new police cruiser and the salary for a full-time officer to watch my house? Can I hire a homeless person to stand in a metered space downtown with a wheelbarrow full of quarters so I can have my own reserved spot? Can I pay to have an additional hydrant installed closer to my house? This is ridiculous. 

alabaster jones 71 wrote on June 29, 2014 at 11:06 pm
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Those all sound perfectly reasonable to me.  Another cop finds employment, and the homeless guy gets some money himself without having to beg.  The extra hydrant in front of your house wouldn't negatively effect anybody.

I know it's fashionable sometimes to complain about everything that rich people do, but sometimes those gripes are just a bunch of hot air and jealousy.

All of the scenarios you mentioned would be economically beneficial to the community, to some small degree.  Who would be harmed in any of those scenarios?

Vav wrote on June 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm

When a private citizes spends their money to improve public infrastructure and they do those improvements to the standards that the public agency would use we should all say a huge THANK YOU!  There are now City resources that are free to work on other projects around the City.  This is a win-win!

Highway funding is a disaster, the federal trust fund will have a negative balance in August, which will bring all construction nation-wide to a stop.  Local governments across the country are going 'back to gravel.'  New infrastructure projects are largely public-private partnerships (P3), which is the model of the future.  Kudos to Mr. Liautaud for stepping up to the plate and investing in our community; investing in an asset that all Champaign tax payers own.

pattsi wrote on June 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Bill, we are in agreement on several of your points--gas tax monies are getting thinner over time and specifically the county will be stretched by 2016. This stated setting precedent in the manner of the present example still ought to be open to discussion among taxpayers. It is not that money was put into a pot from which the city could draw and use according to the prepared and approved work schedule. This put a certain area of the community above everyone else. The nalogy might be if you decide to do "X" for a school your child attends only because you don"t think "y" is good enough though the life cycle is not completed (the case with Armory), but no other school will get "X" even though the "Y" at that school needs it more than your child's. And the argument that the rest of the taxpayers ought to be grateful because private money paid for something and thus apriori the decision making entity now will have more freed up money. This tends to open up a can of worms of decision making, power brokering--think Robert Moses--inequality, and I could go on.

I hope that other taxpayers chime in with other perspectives.

I'm Lovin' It wrote on June 28, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Jimmy is that you? Or is this Tom B? We should all thank our lucky stars that such philanthropy exists? Should we tuck our forelocks in gratitude?

Let me give you one more example: my kid's classroom needs new computers. So I upgrade them by purchasing all new computers. BUT just for my kid's class. To the heck with those other classes in the school - let someone else do it.

You're essentially arguing in favor of feudal lords. 


So much for the common good right?

alabaster jones 71 wrote on June 29, 2014 at 11:06 pm
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@I'm Lovin It, that's what taxes are for.  Of course, taxes should be evenly distributed between each of those classes.  But, if someone else wants to step up to the plate and donate their own money to a specific class, that is none of your business to complain about.

Yes, of course, there are a lot of ways that the greed of the super-rich is negatively impacting our community and country.  However, these scenarios that you are describing here are a whole different ballgame.  Why are you so insistent on telling other people how they can and can't spend their money?

I'm starting to get really tired of a certain subset of those on the political left, who believe that privatization is always a dirty word.

Vav wrote on June 29, 2014 at 10:06 am

There are philanthropists in our community that give to U4 schools, and direct how those monies are to be spent.  They are for specific items at specific schools.  I’ve heard no outrage, only thanks for their generosity.  There are philanthropists in our community that purchase items for parks.  I hear no outcry when these donations go to specific items in specific parks.  Same for libraries and public art and on and on.  Public utilities (roads, schools, parks, public spaces) belong to the public and are funded by the public.  I think that those with a fiduciary responsibility to the public should evaluate a donation any philanthropist that is willing to improve our public infrastructure and if it is reasonable, make it happen.  If the improvement is reasonable and consistent with current practices then celebrate the philanthropy and enjoy.  Encouraging people to give is a good thing, even when that giving is not part of the central planning.

CD Jackson wrote on June 29, 2014 at 11:06 am

I find this troubling given realities described in the June 15 article in this same paper. "Tom Kacich: Dobbins, Western Hills streets on the road to ruin" which decribes the non-existent road maintenance funds for a different Champaign neighborhood.

If we allow money to be the sole critieria for fixing roads and building schools, we are in a heap of trouble. We pay for what we believe in. While I am happy to have "sponsored roads" and other public works, it seems like it makes sense for the community (as voiced in the city council, this time) to demand an equal amount be spent on something that does not benefit the donor. So if he wanted it badly enough, sure but in this case it costs $1 million to get it done.

In the examples cited in the comments (land for city building, etc.) there was no direct benefit to the donor other than the esteem of the community. Not true in this case and so the word philanthropy does not fit.

I think the city council should approve an equal $500,000 "gift" to Hensley Township to fix their roads (and make that a part of their annual allocation for some years). For all practical purposes it is Champaign, don't hide behind legal niceties and serve your constiuents. And above all, don't call donor driven maintenance projects philanthropy, it just isnt.

n.b. I have no connection to Dobbins Downs.

Vav wrote on June 29, 2014 at 7:06 pm

I agree that the situation in Dobbins Downs is horrible, but it is a totally separate issue. Dobbins Downs is unfortunately an infrastructure orphan where the political body that provides infrastructure (township) does not have even a fraction of the resources needed to maintain neighborhood streets.  This is one of the down sides to our fractured system of 6,968 local government agencies combined with a small and shrinking highway fund and a fractured mechanism for distributing the scarce funding that does exist.  A potential solution is for the City of Champaign to anex Dobbins Downs and improve their infrastructure.  This would have to be a desire to hlep the community as there will never be a positive ROI on the funding side.

There have been numerous donations to schools where the donor directed that the funds be spent at a certain building on certain items.  There are a number of parks where fields or playground equipment or other features were paid by donors to be placed in a particular park.  These are direct comparisons where private parties made donations and directed them to specific areas of public infrastructure.  For schools and parks they are generally celebrated.  Somehow it is different for roads???

pattsi wrote on June 29, 2014 at 1:06 pm

These comments are most useful. I do hope more share their thoughts.

A poster reminded us about the condition of the roads in Dobbins Down (an area within 3 townships). As Vav pointed out, there is declining motor ful tax revenues for roads/maintenance. This is the issue for Hensley twnshp and Champaign twnshp right now. Putting these two together part of this conversation might focus on what is happening in the community related to roads--the N-G printed a long list that did not include work on campus. Part of the list includes building new roads--expanding 130, extending Olympian east and Lincoln north, extending Olympian west in Champaign, widening of Dewey-Fisher rd, widening Windsor bridge over the highway, Unit 4 HS site and 4th street has been extended south with a connection to 1st--all of these will have to be maintained; yet we are warned that there are dimenishing monies to do so. Does all of this fall within the definition of insanity--doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. According to Vav's argument, it is all right to rely/expect help from the private sector to solve public sector decisions and responsibilities.


Vav wrote on June 29, 2014 at 8:06 pm

Pattsi - There is a different between accepting and rely/expecting.  I am in support of accpting.  As far as relying/expecting, I would look to do something to solve the problem that we have in transportation funding.  

We have a federal gax tax at 18.4 cents/gal that has not changed since 1997.  The State of Illinois has a 19 cent/gal tax that is supposed to be dedicated to transportation (not always dedicated).  The State further has a 6.25% sales tax on gasoline, but it goes to the general fund and does not return to roads.  Champaign & Urbana have local gas taxes.  Even with all of these taxes most are paying less than $200 per year to maintain roads and these amounts haven't changed in decades.  And with vehilces getting more efficient and electric vehicles, our roads will continue to crubmle.

Tom Kacich wrote on June 29, 2014 at 4:06 pm
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We have a winner!

Astrid Berkson, a member of the Champaign County Board, correctly answered the question at the end of the column and wins tickets to the July 12 CUBS Night at Danville Stadium. The answer is Walter "Moose" Moryn, who saved Don Cardwell's no-hitter for the Cubs in 1960.

alabaster jones 71 wrote on June 29, 2014 at 11:06 pm
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If he wants to spend his own money to improve a couple streets in town that are important to him, then how could anyone possibly object to that?  

He is in no way obligated to spend his money on Dobbins Downs, or any other deteriorated street in town.

I think this sets a great precedent, honestly.  I wish more people would spend their own money for infrastructure in their neighborhoods.  Armory and Fox Drive might not have needed repairs as much as other roads in town, but they would have eventually.  In the long run, this is saving the city and taxpayers money.

So, yeah, it pains me to type this out, but here I go......good for you, Jimmy John.