Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 12, 2018

Tom's #Mailbag, Jan. 12, 2018

Want to ask a question of our veteran reporter? Click here and he'll try to track down an answer.

Nice variety of questions in the mailbag this week: Boneyard Creek history, where to get ethanol-free gasoline, use of polygraph tests in federal court, coffee shops in public libraries, intersections without stop signs, a new retail site in north Champaign, parking problems in south Champaign, unemployment benefits for a fired public official, whether freight trains run on a schedule and mysterious loud noises heard near downtown Champaign.

Also, what do school resource officers do when there's no school?


Coffee shops at libraries

"Do the coffee shops at the Urbana and Champaign libraries operate at a profit?"

Both of the coffee shops now are run by the libraries, not as a private business.

"Our coffee shop is run by the library as of last year. We provide this as an amenity to people who use the library and to groups who hold meetings here," said Donna Pittman, director of the Champaign Public Library. "It is popular and we are currently making a small profit each month."

In Urbana, said library Executive Director Celeste Choate, "the Library does run the Café, which breaks even."

"Although there isn't a financial profit, the Cafe provides other benefits," she said, such as adding to the variety of businesses in downtown Urbana, providing a location for the Friends of The Urbana Free Library to sell gently used books year-round (with revenue that goes directly to the library), provides a location for the sale of library T-shirts, tote bags, thermal mugs, and other gear.

"Most importantly," she said, "it permits the library to keep the historic Race Street entrance, an important connection to the downtown district, accessible all hours the library is open."


Ethanol-free gas

"Can you figure out any reason why the Champaign area does not have any gas stations with ethanol-free (pure) gas? The closest is the FS in Monticello. According to the website (, there are two in Bloomington, five in the Peoria area, one in Springfield, one in Decatur and lots of others throughout the state. Ethanol is really hard on old cars and small engines that it would be nice to have an option somewhere. Many of the stations are affiliated with Hy-Vee stores and FS. Since Harvest Market is similar to Hy-Vee, the Haymakers would be a good spot or the FS in Urbana."

A modicum of good news for you.

I checked with Illini FS in Urbana and energy manager Chris Olson said it would not provide ethanol-free gas.

"As FS our major revenue is driven through farmers and farmers benefit from the use of ethanol so we're going to promote ethanol every chance we can," he said. "We won't offer it in our gas stations."

Olson said the Monticello FS is owned by Piatt Service, which is separate from Illini FS, which is owned by farmers in five counties.

He said he was surprised to hear that the Monticello FS sold ethanol-free gas.

But Olson suggested a call to Awesome Machines in Savoy.

They do sell small amounts of ethanol-free gas. It's $3.99 a gallon.

"Tell them to bring in their own 5-gallon container and we'll sell them all they want," said parts manager Rick McCall. "I just can't dispense it into a car."


Lie detector

"I keep seeing articles regarding Brendt Christensen's upcoming trial for kidnapping. He has not confessed and I am wondering if he has had a lie detector test?"

Let me suggest that you have watched too many crime shows.

First, the government — in this case the police or prosecutors — cannot force anyone to take a polygraph examination.

Second, the results of lie detector tests are not admissible in federal court criminal cases, said Urbana defense attorney Steve Beckett. Christensen is being tried in federal court.

And if he was tried in a state court, it wouldn't be admissible there either. Illinois is among the states where even if both parties wish to enter a polygraph test into evidence, it is forbidden except in rare scenarios.


Mysterious booms

"I work in downtown Champaign and for the last month or two there have been intermittent and very loud boom noises with no apparent source. Sometimes they happen every few minutes and sometimes it'll go days between them. It seems to have started around the time they removed the old printing press from the (former) News-Gazette building, but maybe that's just a coincidence. What's the deal? We'd love to know."

I checked with Larry Happ, who is Champaign's building safety supervisor — the guy most likely to know whether a construction or demo project was making booming noises downtown — and he didn't know of anything.

Here's my guess: the booming of the giant hammers at the Clifford-Jacobs forging plant in north Champaign can sometimes be heard downtown. And because the prevailing wind lately has been from the north, that would carry the sound downtown easily.

Anyone else have a possible explanation, or a theory?


Fire-damaged apartment

"We would like to know the status of the small apartment building at 611 South State Street in Champaign. There was a fire there just over a year ago. What is happening with this property? We are interested to know if there are plans to renovate or sell."

No permit applications have been submitted for the building, said Happ.

David Oliver, code compliance manager for Champaign's Neighborhood Services Department, said "the property owner addressed the exterior deficiencies and replaced the damaged doors and windows caused by the fire. We are unable to pursue the property under the vacant nuisance residential building ordinance because it is a multi-family building and the ordinance addresses single family residential structures.

"We are monitoring the property for permits to ensure any interior deficiencies caused by the fire will be addressed prior to future occupancy. It is uncertain at this point when the owner plans to begin renovations soon or place the property up for sale as is."


North Champaign retail site

"Green Street Realty has finally begun construction of a retail shopping center on the corner of Prospect Avenue and Interstate Drive. Any idea what businesses or restaurants have signed on as tenants?"

So far only a shell building permit has been issued for 2710-2718 N. Prospect Ave., said Happ. No permit applications have been submitted for tenants.

Chris Saunders, the owner of Green Street Realty, said two tenants have signed leases for the location but "I am unable to disclose the tenants at the time per the terms of our lease agreements. I am hoping to make an official announcement soon."


Parking issues in south Champaign

"The Next Generation Schools keep expanding and yet they seem to never have enough parking for their staff as they spill out onto surrounding streets. Do developers have an obligation to build parking for their employees?"

When a private school builds a new building, or converts an existing building to school use "they are required to meet our parking requirements per the zoning ordinance which are generally one space per classroom plus one per 300 square feet of office," said Champaign Planning and Development Director Bruce Knight.

Requirements for high schools also mandate one space for each 10 students (per design capacity).

"If those requirements are not meeting demand for Next Generation then there is little we can do after the fact," he said.


Intersections with no signs?

"What is the requirement in Champaign and Urbana for signage at an intersection? In my neighborhood in Champaign, there are stop signs at more major intersections, but others that seem like they should at least have yield signs are bare. What gives?"

It all depends on the type of intersection, said Chris Sokolowski, the assistant city engineer in Champaign.

"City policy is to install stop signs on one of the two streets at intersections with four approaches, typically on the street anticipated to have less traffic on it. Prior to the current policy there was a time when some four-approach intersections in residential areas did not have stop signs; there was an effort years ago to find and install stop signs at these intersections," he said.If you drive through a four-approach intersection and one of the two streets does not have stop signs, Sokolowski asked that you contact the public works department and stop signs will be installed on one of the streets.

"For 'T' intersections (intersections with only three approaches) the Illinois Vehicle Code stipulates any vehicle on the terminating street stop, yield, and grant the right-of-way to vehicles on the through street," said Sokolowski. "In residential areas, stop signs are not typically installed at T intersections. Exceptions include locations where a local street ends at a major street like Mattis or Prospect, locations along a Safe Walking Route to School, and locations that have had a history of public safety concerns."

Yield signs are currently only used at roundabouts, he said.


Cunningham termination

"Regarding the Jan. 31 termination of Joe Meents in Cunningham Township, will he be eligible for Unemployment Benefits? Was this the plan all along?"

Cunningham Township Assessor Wayne Williams, who terminated Meents last week, said that he isn't certain but he believes "that kind of engagement does not incur that kind of liability."

Illinois Department of Security spokesman Bob Gough said only that "(d)etermining an individual's eligibility after being terminated is investigated on a case by case basis."

But Traci Nally, an attorney and The News-Gazette's human resources director, said that after 30 days an employee would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

In her opinion, she said, "And since he is being discharged due to no cause of his own (the township knew who it was hiring and are continuing to employ him now in spite of his history of misconduct) the township would be unlikely to win a protest to prevent the unemployment benefits."


Train schedules public?

"Is there a way I can look up a train schedule for a particular intersection? After getting a new job, I'm finding my new route to work is going to take me across a train track and I keep getting stopped no matter if I leave a little earlier or later."

Good luck with that.

Freight trains usually do not run on precise schedules.

As for running into Amtrak trains, that too is an imprecise science. Southbound trains are due in Champaign at 10:25 a.m., 4:05 p.m. and 8:05 p.m. Northbound trains are in Champaign around 6:10 a.m., 10:15 a.m. and 7 p.m.

But Amtrak service is notoriously late, ranging from 69 percent on-time for the Chicago-New Orleans City of New Orleans (in the last 12 months) to a horrible 4 percent on the Champaign-Chicago Illini.


Student Resource Officers

"I'm curious as to what happens to school resource officers (SROs) in Champaign-Urbana during school breaks. Are they assigned elsewhere in the police department during this time?"

In Urbana, said Police Chief Sylvia Morgan, "our school resource officer is a detective. In addition to handling school duties he carries a case load of criminal investigations. During school breaks his focus becomes entirely criminal investigations.

The same is true in Champaign, said Chief Anthony Cobb, where the SROs "are assigned to the police department's Investigations Division, and generally work out of the school during the school year. However, when school is not in session, they work from the Investigations Division on cases that require additional investigation.

"The cases the SROs typically work involve juveniles, and SROs routinely work with at risk youth, juvenile service providers, and the state's attorney's office on these cases. Additionally, SROs are also involved with several community service projects during these times, especially during the summer months where they host youth centered programs such as the Youth Police Academy."


Boneyard book

Do you by any chance know if a digitized version of "An Engineer's History of Boneyard Creek in Champaign-Urbana Illinois" is available anywhere online?

"I sadly no longer live in the Champaign-Urbana area so I can't check the book out from the library."

We checked with the great archives staff at the Urbana Free Library and they reported that they were unable to find any digitized versions. But the Urbana library has a copy "in our circulating collection that they could request through Interlibrary Loan. They would need to go to their public library and have the staff request the book from us," said archives librarian Sherrie Bowser.She also suggested that the Jane Addams Book Shop in Champaign might have a used copy available.

Here's a link to their request page:


Missing Boneyard

"I have always been under the impression that our campus lacks a definite water feature. With that being said, I was wondering if back in the day there was ever any talk to keep the Boneyard Creek above ground? Or was channeling it through tunnels the only viable option to combat flooding in Campustown?"

I checked with Dan McCollum who was mayor (1987-1999) of Champaign at the time the big flood control project was undertaken.

"It could have been left open but there were two problems," he said. "If it had been left open you wouldn't have been able to get the same amount of (water) retention that we got by putting multiple lateral pipes underground around the area of Scott Park. An awful lot of detention is underground.

"You could have left an open channel, I suppose, but that leads to another problem. The maintenance of it. People have drowned in it. It's just too closely bordered by all of those buildings."

McCollum said he believes the Boneyard Greenway Path through Campustown is an attractive feature.

"What we have got is something of an amenity even though it doesn't have water," he said. "I think it's quite an amenity, if you remember what it looked like before. It was awfully hard to maintain."


Champaign Sam's safe

"Is the Sam's Club in Champaign going to close?

No, it is among the 12 Illinois stores that will remain open after the retailer announced Thursday that it would close 63 stores nationwide, seven in Illinois. For the most part the downstate Sam's stores were untouched. Those in Champaign, Normal, Decatur, Peoria, Springfield, Marion, Glen Carbon and O'Fallon will remain open.

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champaign61821 wrote on January 12, 2018 at 2:01 pm

I believe it's been reported that Cunningham Township Supervisor Wayne Williams and Joe Meents were friends before Joe was hired. With the information from attorny Tracy Nally reported above, it's looking more and more like this whole thing was planned from the start. Either the Meents hiring went quietly and he hired his buddy or if he had to let him go (like he did), then his buddy Joe would get unemployment.

EdRyan wrote on January 12, 2018 at 3:01 pm

The draft Boneyard plan that was in discussion when I left Champaign in 1997 included an open channel that was to be finished like a hardscaped and landscaped water feature.  I recall reading later in the NG, that going with the open channel plan ran into budget busting engineering problems related to all of the bridge abutments along the creek.  Check the News Gazette archives.  The answer is in there. 

GLG wrote on January 13, 2018 at 10:01 am

If you enjoy having your lawn and garden equipment hard to start and almost impossible to start once warmed up, please continue to use gasoline that contains ethanol! Chain saws and other 2 cycle products run much better, and are a lot eaiser to start with straight gas, Buy some Staybill gas additive and use it acording to the lable and never have starting problems again. I have used it for several years and have had good luck with it. It's more expensive but it is well woth it! Illini Fs should ask Monticello Fs how much of it they are selling, and YES farmers love it.