Tom's #Mailbag, Dec. 15, 2017

Tom's #Mailbag, Dec. 15, 2017

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The Mailbag turns 4 years old on Thursday. I recently looked back at the first edition and marveled how there wasn't a single question about chain restaurants. Sigh.

So this week we have questions about the usual suspects: chain restaurants and street conditions, plus the condition of police and fire pension funds, the zero-energy ECE Building on campus, a vacant lot, the fairness of the jury demand fee and two comments from readers.

Chain, chain, chain restaurants

"Any more word on when Golden Corral will be opening?"


"Do you know when the burger/ice cream place (Oberweis) will open? Construction is nearing completion there.

"What about Golden Corral? I also see a pizza place near north end Walmart under construction."

First, a friendly reminder: you know there are a lot of excellent individual- and family-owned restaurants in Champaign-Urbana, right? They are places owned and operated by your neighbors, the people who put their money right back into the community.

As for Golden Corral, Michael Petroline of GC Buffet & Associates in Vero Beach, Fla., which is the listed as the applicant for a building permit from the city of Champaign, said it's uncertain when construction will begin.

"I have no idea right now. Waiting for permit and winter is upon us," said Petroline, who is president of the company.

The city hasn't issued a building permit for the site at 1202 W. Anthony Drive, although permits for site grading and erosion control have been issued.

Regarding the Oberweis store, it will open in early January, CEO Joe Oberweis told the News-Gazette's Ben Zigterman. Here's that story ...

And Champaign Building Safety Supervisor Larry Happ said that the site at 2506 N. Prospect Ave. will be a Blaze Pizza Restaurant. Blaze Pizza is a Pasadena, Calif.-based chain that specializes in make-your-own pizzas.

Here's more from The News-Gazette's Tim Mitchell (plus there will be a story in Sunday's N-G:

New sushi restaurant

"What is the empty building north of the Ace Hardware and south of the Home 2 by Hilton on South Neil going to be?"

Happ says a building permit for 2017 S. Neil St. Suite D is under review by the city.

"It is a Moki Sushi restaurant," he said.

ECE Building

"Speaking of the UIUC's iffy foray into energy conservation (solar array down), since part of getting the Unobtainium level of LEED certification for the new (Electrical and Computer) Engineering Building was a promise of zero net energy usage, how's that coming? F&S knows in detail since buildings are now metered for not just electricity and gas, but chilled water and steam."

The building's not there yet, but that's still the goal.

"The installation of the solar panels on the roof of the ECE Building was significantly delayed due to the work stoppage when the state was operating without a budget," said Todd Sweet, director of communications for Electrical and Computer Engineering. "Now that a budget has been approved we have been able to continue that project. As of now, we anticipate completing the installation of the solar panels by the end of 2018. Once operational, the array will greatly assist us in reaching our goal to become a net-zero facility."

Police and fire pension funds

"Danville made the Chicago Tribune editorial page with a discussion of a $267/year fee for its local pensions. How do Champaign and Urbana's local pensions compare? I never hear about this in the local paper."

That's probably because the Champaign and Urbana police and fire pension funds are much better funded than either Danville's or the state average and are either close to or above the 80 percent minimum funding ratio that actuaries consider adequate.

Danville's firefighter pension fund was at 16.56 percent on April 30, 2016, according to a state Department of Insurance report.

The police pension fund was at 30.49 percent.

Urbana's July 1, 2017, actuarial valuations were at 82.59 percent for the firefighters fund and 66.72 percent for the police fund, said Urbana Finance Director Elizabeth Hannan. (The aforementioned state report had the firefighters fund at 87.49 percent and the police fund at 74 percent.

"As the Mayor indicated in her budget message for FY2018, increasing pension funding is a high priority for the city," Hannan noted.

In Champaign the situation is virtually identical, said Finance Director Kay Nees.

"As of June 30, 2016 (the date of our last issued audit report) the percent funded for the Police Pension Fund was 73.16 percent and the Firefighters' Pension Fund percent funded was 72.30 percent," Nees said. "Our June 30, 2017, audit report will be issued by the end of the calendar year. As of June 30, 2017, the percent funded for the Police Pension fund was 80.41 percent and the Firefighters' Pension Fund percent funded was 74.54 percent." The Department of Insurance report listed Champaign's firefighters fund at 78.7 percent and the police fund at 78.57 percent.

The average suburban and downstate Illinois police pension, according to the Department of Insurance, had a 57.9 percent funding rate. The average for downstate and suburban firefighter pensions at that time was 57.15 percent.

As for stories in The News-Gazette about local pension funds, there was this one this year ...

And a column I wrote in 2015 ...

Jury fee refunded?

"When you request a jury trial in Champaign County you are charged a jury fee. Mine was $225 and we settled the civil suit out of court. When I asked my attorney if the county refunded that fee, he laughed. What's up Tom?"

We asked Champaign County Circuit Clerk Katie Blakeman and she offered this response:

"The Jury Demand fee in civil cases in Champaign County is $212.50. I am not sure where your reader got the amount of $225, but it may have included other fees that his or her attorney charged.

"The Jury Demand fee is authorized by statute, and set by the county board. There is no statutory provision for refunds of filing fees, and though a case may be settled out of court, the county's costs for empaneling a

jury are still expended in many ways before the trial. For example, a typical jury trial requiring 12 jurors with two alternates may require up to 60 people to be summonsed.

"The county encounters printing and mailing costs, as well as staff time. Once a juror is summonsed, he or she cannot be sent another notice for at least one calendar year. Many times a case will be settled after jurors have already arrived. In that case, the County is required to pay those jurors for the day, whether or not they are assigned to a trial."

If you have more questions, Blakeman said, you can call her directly.

North Lincoln Avenue fix

"I'm sure the genius leadership in Urbana has a great answer to this, but as I drive up north Lincoln Avenue this morning in the rain, one has to wonder why after spending all that money on resurfacing North Lincoln they would leave a piece of junk pavement by Mack's that floods when it rains ... appears to be another solid thought out engineering decision by Urbana."

Despite your snark, Urbana Public Works Director Bill Gray was gracious to respond.

"The stretch of pavement adjacent to Mack's needs to be fully reconstructed since it is weak. Funds are not available for this major expense," he said. "Portions of the worst pavement were patched. Full reconstruction may occur in five to 10 years. The pavement ponding will be addressed next construction season."

Speed limits

"On Philo Road south of Washington, the speed limit is 30 heading south until you get around the curve by Fairlawn where it become 35, but 35 mph heading north until you cross Washington. Why is this?"

Urbana Public Works Director Bill Gray replied: "Thank you for bringing this to the city's attention. The speed limit signage northbound will be revised to match the southbound speed limit."

Damaged road sign

"There is a road sign just west of U.S. 45 on the Monticello Road facing eastbound traffic that has been damaged for more than a year. It looks like something has struck it and folded it around the post its a 'U.S. 45' shield. Monticello Road is a county road, who's sign is this?"

Champaign County Engineer Jeff Blue and IDOT Region 3 Engineer Kensil Garnett say they will work together to get the sign replaced.

The Springfield Avenue weave

"Eastbound Springfield Avenue in Champaign requires you to weave back and forth from the left lane to the right lane to go straight between 5th, 6th, and Wright. The alternating one-way cross streets cause this. Can there be straight and turn arrows above the lanes on the traffic signal bars across the intersection?

"You cannot see the pavement arrows early enough when there's traffic ahead of you. There are signs on the side (Right Lane Must Turn Right), but that's not ideal. You have to glance to the right when you may be almost even with the sign, parse a statement about turning right, and convert that to 'move to the left lane to go straight.'

"I've lived in town almost 20 years now and still frantically try to recall which way the cross streets go to decide which lane to be in to go straight.

A pair of explicit arrows above the lanes on the cross bar would be wonderful. That also places the signs within the roadway instead of off to the side, which seems like better human factors engineering."

IDOT District 5 "has strived to maintain the pavement markings and has added the lane-use signage that you refer to on the right-hand side of the street," said Garnett. "The lane-use signs on the right are placed at or near the decision point where motorists should be choosing which lane they need to use for the upcoming intersection. In this and other areas of Champaign-Urbana, we have been able to install an additional sign between the decision point and the intersection. This is generally challenging to do since there is typically a lot of existing sign congestion through urban areas.

"In some locations, like the Bloomington Road/Prospect Avenue intersection, we have added lane-use signs to the traffic signal mast arms like you suggested. This placement is intended more to reinforce the allowable movements from each lane as it is too late to switch lanes by the time the sign is visible. We also are restricted by the square feet of signage that can be placed on traffic signal mast arms due to the added wind load that results."

Garnett said IDOT "will review the corridor to see if placement of additional signage on the mast arms is possible.

The signs that read "Right Lane Must Turn Right" and "Left Lane Must Turn Left" are Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices standard signs that are designed to convey a short, succinct message.

"Signs with custom messages are discouraged as it requires more cognitive attention than standard signs that are more common," he said.

Enviro Almanac

"What has become of the Environmental Almanac in pages of The News-Gazette? I can still hear it on WILL where the promo says it can also be read in the paper."

EA author Rob Kanter's column will be back this Sunday. He'll still be writing from time to time.

Vacant lot still vacant

"Sorry if this has been covered before, but do you have any idea what will be developed on the vacant lot on the south side of West Springfield between the Walgreens and Midland State Bank?"

No building permit application has been submitted for the vacant lot at 1703 W Springfield Ave., said Happ.

Two comments

"Tom, this is regarding the bright lights in Savoy that you wrote about in your last two columns. I just want to thank you for dealing with my question promptly. I can confirm that the lights are much dimmer and the problem has been solved."


"Absolutely love the pedal cabs (in downtown Champaign)! Love seeing them out and about, love seeing how much fun riders are having, and love riding! Keep the pedal pubs pedaling!"

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cwakefld wrote on December 15, 2017 at 7:12 pm

I do not understand the fascination with chain restaurants. But I suppose a person who is excited about a Golden Corral, might not appreciate a Farren's etc..