Tom's Mailbag May 29, 2015

Tom's Mailbag May 29, 2015

Questions for Tom? Submit them here

I’ve only been able to get to about half the questions in what is an overflowing bag 'o mail this week. But if legislators stay out of Springfield for a week or two, I think I’ll make quick work of that backlog.

This week, in what I’m calling the “Mailbag Agenda” in honor of battlin’ Gov. Bruce Rauner, we look at venomous snakes in Champaign County, the county’s burial field for the indigent, two potential developments in Urbana, tax increases in Urbana, drainage at Illinois Field, what once was called the Democratic picnic grounds north of Urbana, proposed constitutional amendments governing legislative redistricting and Census Bureau population estimates.

Venomous snakes in Champaign County

“We have seen a number of snakes lately and a lot of discussion about them has occurred on social media. Are there any reports of venomous snakes and snakebites in Champaign County in the last 10 years? Last 100 years?”

Christopher Phillips at the Illinois Natural History Survey is the authority on venomous Illinois snakes. He said “there aren’t any venomous snakes in Champaign County. There were, if you go back 160 years. There were massasauga rattlesnakes.

“More recently massasaugas have been in Piatt County at Allerton (Park). But we haven’t seen them in a decade. There was a population of massasauga rattlesnakes there but we think they’ve gone extinct. We haven’t seen them there in almost a decade and we’ve done some pretty serious searching, not just casual stuff, but directed surveys for them.”

The last time there was any report “of a venomous snakebite in Champaign County” is contained in a local history book that vaguely reported of one at Riverside Cemetery in Mahomet around the turn of the century.

“But I can’t find any newspaper articles to back that up,” Phillips said.

The only massasauga rattlesnakes still found in Illinois are at Carlyle Lake in Clinton County, south of Greenville, he said.

Three other venomous snakes are found in the state, said Phillips: timber rattlesnakes found throughout Illinois, including as far north as Galena; copperheads; and cottonmouths, both found in southern Illinois.

“Historically the timber rattlesnake went up the Illinois (River), at least to LaSalle County. But that current distribution along the Illinois is probably much, much reduced now,” said Phillips, an Illinois native and herpetologist who has been at the Natural History Survey for 23 years.

He said Champaign County probably had “widespread populations” of massasauga before the ground was broken by early settlers and drainage systems were developed in the prairie marshes in the late 1800s.

“That and conversion to row crops really did it,” he said. “Whatever made it through the drainage probably were wiped out by the shift to row crops from pasture and that sort of thing.”

Urbana taxes

“Did taxes go up in Urbana? Heard that maybe the sales tax increased lately.”

On Monday the city council (which will meet at 7 p.m.) is expected to vote on four separate tax increases, although an across-the-board sales tax increase is not among them.

The four items include: a half-percent increase, to 10 percent, on food and alcoholic liquor; a 1-cent increase in the current 4 cents per gallon motor fuel tax; a 1.5 cents per therm increase in the city’s current 3.5-cent natural gas tax; and a 1 percent increase in Urbana’s hotel-motel tax, to 7 percent, which would make it 2 percent more than Champaign’s rate.

Overall the four tax increases would generate more than $850,000 a year for the city government.

Legislative redistricting proposal

“How would the panel to draw Illinois legislative districts be selected under the proposal to change the current process? Who would be eligible to serve? How would commissioners go about the task?”

Here’s how the Independent Map Amendment groups explains their proposal — link

In brief there would be an 11-member commission with seven members selected by a three-member Applicant Review Panel (whose members would be selected in a random draw by applications made to the auditor general), and the remaining four members chosen by the four legislative leaders.

All of their meetings and records would be public, “except for meetings qualified under attorney-client privilege,” and the commission would have to “hold public hearings throughout the state both before and after releasing the initial proposed redistricting plan.” 

Approval of the proposed legislative map would need the vote of seven of the 11 commission members. If they can’t decide on a map, two Illinois Supreme Court members, one from each party, would appoint a Special Commissioner for Redistricting to draw the map.

There’s also a separate redistricting commission proposal from Gov. Bruce Rauner, and sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont. That proposal has gone nowhere in the Democratic-dominated Legislature. Its lack of progress is one of many sources of irritation among Republicans this spring.

Here’s the Rauner-backed amendment — link

Illinois Field drainage

“Tom, with the first ever NCAA baseball regional at Illinois Field this weekend perhaps you can answer one of the most perplexing questions about Illinois Field. Can you explain why the dugouts were built so the angle of the ceiling runs the water into the dugouts rather that into the stands? This keeps me up at night!” 

Two of the greatest minds at the Illinois athletic program looked into this question, even checking out the dugout and drainage system themselves.

Event coordinator Zach Acton and sports information director Kent Brown admitted they hadn’t noticed the way water drains off the dugout roof at 27-year-old Illinois Field until your question. 

They’re still not certain why it drains that way but it seems to be logical. 

“I know that we do have drains on the dugout floor. They are positioned directly where that water runoff occurs. That is better than running into the stands since it would puddle up in that first row behind the dugout. It doesn’t actually run onto the field at all. Runs directly to the drains on the floor of the dugout,” Acton wrote.

So there you have it. Apparently something was designed to do exactly what it does, and it works. 

Thanks for your work, anonymous architect, and your research, Zach and Kent.

Democratic Party picnic grounds

"Do the Champaign County Democrats still have picnic grounds north of I-74?"

Local Democrats never owned the picnic area, said Champaign County Democratic Party Chairman Al Klein, “but we have held events at Loretta Dessen’s venue over the years.” 

Loretta Dessen and her late husband Ed, have owned the Farm Lake retreat north of Urbana since the 1950s, according to Melissa Nerli’s story earlier this month.

Here’s a link to it ... 

Potter’s field

“In the May 24 issue under Area History — 100 years ago — it was written that Edward Hearst was shot and killed, and that his body was unclaimed, and he was buried in the potter’s field at the county’s expense. Where is the potter’s field?”

“I have to say this is a good question and I unfortunately do not know the answer,” said Champaign County Corner Duane Northrup. “Our records at the coroner’s office only go back to as early as the 1960s and they are limited at best.”

There is a plaque near the county’s Brookens Administrative Center that notes that the area once was a burial ground, Northrup said.

“I do not know where the graves were moved to before the (old Brookens Middle School) was built at the Brookens site,” he said.

But he said there is a potter’s field, or burial grounds for the indigent, located along a fence in the Mount Hope Cemetery in Champaign.

“I contacted the cemetery years ago, after I became coroner, to inquire where the potter’s field was located and how many available spaces were there,” Northrup said. “I was unable to obtain any accurate information from the cemetery other than where it was located. They advised there were no more grave spaces available. When I inquired who would have documentation of the spaces, they could not provide any answers. I called the cemetery yesterday to confirm what I had been told previously and received the same information. They informed me no one had been buried in the potter’s field for more than 10 years and there were no grave spaces available in the section designated as potter’s field. I inquired who originally designated the area known as potter’s field and made the decision to bury indigent persons there and they could not tell me.”

He said he isn’t aware of a current potter’s field in Champaign County.

“It is my understanding the decision to offer graves for indigent burial falls under the individual cemetery boards and most do not have any available spaces in their ‘potters field’ or they are unwilling to provide spaces for this purpose,” said Northrup.

I’m going to try to do some more research on the county’s potter’s field in June.

Questions about downtown Urbana buildings

“I have noticed that a building next to Corson Music’s Guitar Store (202 W. Main St. Urbana) has been demolished. In its place is just an empty space. This past week I noticed that several people have been spray painting the walls on both sides of this empty space. Some looks nice, but some looks like flat-out vandalism. Anyway, no one seems to know what is really going on with this now empty space. Any insight as to what this is going to become or why all the spray painting? Thanks.”


“What is going on at the site of the old Goodyear store on Vine Street in Urbana, across from Lincoln Square?’

Brandon Boys, Urbana’s economic development manager, has some of the lowdown on both locations.

The Goodyear site is the subject of an appeal by the city for requests for development proposals. Coincidentally, the deadline for developers to submit proposals is 5 p.m. today. Originally it was May 8, but Boys said the city “received requests from multiple prospective applicants for an extension as we neared the original deadline.”

According to the executive summary of the city’s RFP, Urbana’s “goal is to provide for a disposition of the property to a private developer or development team for a high density, modern, urban development that contributes to the fabric and livability of downtown Urbana.”

The 204 West Main site “is in the process of being developed into the Airbana market — an outdoor beer garden, market, and event space,” he said.

Boys noted that News-Gazette writer Don Dodson reported on the location a few weeks ago.

As for the spray painting, property owner Matt Cho said it is intended to be a community-sourced project that encourages artists to display work or try a new medium through “open painting.” Boys said that Cho reports “the response so far has been overwhelming with many artists offering to contribute and experiment — including many young and student artists.” 

About those population estimates

“I read the 5/22 story about population changes in the area. How much of the growth in Champaign is attributable to the annexation of neighborhoods that had been surrounding the city of Champaign, but were not technically a part of the city of Champaign, until the neighborhoods were annexed over the past 4 to 5 years?”

You are correct, according to Illinois state demographer Mohammed Shahidullah at the Illinois Department of Public Health. He said the Census Bureau takes into account changes in “sub-county” boundaries when updating its census estimates.

Thanks for the questions, folks. I’ll get to the overflow next week.

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Lostinspace wrote on May 29, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Extremely important correction: that should be "bag o' mail."