Tom's #Mailbag, Aug. 10, 2018


Tom's #Mailbag, Aug. 10, 2018

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We're about to run out of infrastructure questions, aren't we? This week's list includes a request for a more elegant fountain at the Second Street Basin in Champaign and questions about farming around Willard Airport, school playgrounds, a tornado shelter in the Champaign City Building and mail delivery.

Also another comment on biking on township roads, an update on a University of Illinois campus landmark that will be razed in the next several days, a pronunciation guide for a town in McLean County, the cost of publicizing property assessments and Champaign's parental leave policy.


School playgrounds

"We recently saw that Kenwood Elementary School's playground is finally being updated from the old structure built in 1963. As someone who lives in the neighborhood I couldn't figure out why other Unit 4 schools like Bottenfield have new, huge playgrounds while this one sat here for 50-plus years, often in disrepair. My question is, who and what determines when schools get updates? Is the neighborhood the schools are in a factor? Is it up to the individual schools to fundraise for updates and how big of a hand does the city play in it? Thankfully Kenwood's playset is being updated but it was through a man who recently lost his son who attended the school, it wasn't even through the school district/city from what I understand. What gives?"

Emily Schmit, spokeswoman for the Champaign school district, provided this reponse: "There are a few different paths that lead to playground updates and improvements. The district conducted an audit a couple of years ago to evaluate the condition and age of equipment. As a result, we have been updating playgrounds as we can, beginning with the greatest need.

"Oftentimes, a school Parent Teacher Association (PTA) will work to raise funds to make playground improvements. These efforts can result in the school getting the update sooner than when the district would complete the work.

"We are fortunate that Carrie Busey and Booker T. Washington schools sit adjacent to Champaign Park District playgrounds. Those schools have benefited from playground updates in recent years."


Country Fair work

"Has there been any update or plans for new business coming to the Country Fair shopping center? I've noticed some work being done to the old Goldblatt's store."

Don't get too excited about a major re-do of Country Fair. There's a building alteration permit for an estimated $35,000 of work to the Champaign Gymnastics Academy at 219 S. Mattis Ave. It's getting a new training room and restrooms.


Willard Airport farmland

"Inside barb wired fences at Willard Airport, there appear to be acres and acres of corn and beans. Which raises the question: Who farms this protected land, what checkpoints must be cleared, does the airport cash in on the crops, what does the FAA think about all this? Just curious."

Gene Cossey, executive director at Willard Airport, said that corn and beans have been planted (currently 948 acres) on airport property for decades.

"The FAA allows us to use property on the airport that is not being used for aeronautical purposes to be used for non-aeronautical purposes in order to offset the cost of operating the airport. One of the things we do and airports all over the Midwest do is to use that vacant land for farming," he said.

Cossey said the FAA and TSA permit the farming "as long as we follow their proscribed standards. Some of those standards ensure that we're doing it a safe distance away from runways and taxiways and that security operations are being followed and that the proper training has been done with everybody."

The farmland leases are handled not by the airport but by the UI's agricultural property services.

"They put those out for bid every three years and do a selection based on their standards," he said.

The three farm operators on the Willard property, according to University of Illinois spokewsoman Robin Kaler, are Fisher Farms, Wise Farms and Taylor farms.


Storm sewers

"On May 25, the Mailbag answered some questions about sanitary sewers and their treatment by the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District My questions concern the many open storm sewers that seem to abound in residential areas of Champaign and which are apparently managed by the city. Why are so many of these inlets without grates? Does the city fail to recognize that gaping holes on curb cuts are easily accessible by young children and animals? Notable open inlets are in front of 621 W. Hill Street and a double-wide one in front of 620 W. Church Street. As a parent and a pet owner, I have worried about these open grates for years. Does the city have a plan to replace the open inlets with grates that (literally) have teeth?"

"The city continues to balance flood risk and safety," said Public Works spokesman Kris Koester. "Grated curb inlets are easily plugged by leaves, grass clippings, plastic bags, or other litter, leading to curb deep street flooding during heavy rain. Cutting out the grate 'teeth' or installing curb grates without teeth is a standard industry practice that allows smaller debris to be carried into the storm sewer rather than blocking flow. Since these inlets exist within the street cross-section, the inlets and street traffic both have the potential to be a safety risk."


Buckingham Fountain in Champaign?

"The water aerator in the retention pond near the White Street bridge adds nothing visually to what is a lovely park. Could it be replaced with a real fountain? Adding a more elegant device would do a lot to enhance the attractiveness of that park."

Don't plan on seeing anything like Chicago's Buckingham Fountain from the White Street bridge, said Koester.

"Thank you for the compliment on our stormwater facility, the Second Street Basin. There are currently no plans to replace the water aerator in the Second Street Detention Basin. We have used similar aerators in our recent detention basin construction at other locations and find the aerators to be an attractive, economical, low maintenance way to provide aeration to the basins." he said.


LeRoy cheat sheet

"There is a town between Champaign and Bloomington called LeRoy (Le Roy). First, is the name one word or two words and second, is the "E" pronounced as a long or short vowel? I've asked several people who have said they are all familiar with the town but don't know which way to say the name properly."

It's one word, according to the official city code.

And it's LEEE-roy not Le-ROY — the same as the song "Bad Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce — said Anita Corso in the LeRoy city clerk's office.

"It's based on an Indian tribe. It's not based on the French," she said.


Sunday delivery

"I've noticed US mail trucks are delivering mail on Sunday. I don't believe it's regular mail but they are leaving packages at some houses. Is this an attempt to compete with private delivery services or are postal workers unable to deliver all the mail Monday through Saturday?"

Mike Cooke, of U.S. Postal Service corporate communications in St. Louis, said, "Some of our larger package shippers pay the Postal Service an additional fee and request that we deliver their parcels on Sundays. We have been delivering parcels on Sundays for more than two years."


Delayed delivery

"I live on the very edge of Champaign and normally don't have mail delivered until after 4 p.m., sometimes even later into the evening. There have been several instances where package tracking has indicated that items are on the truck for delivery in the morning and they don't show up until the next day. I spoke with a post office employee, and he indicated that most likely the mail carrier ran out of time to deliver and had to return back to the post office. What is causing this? Are there not enough postal workers in Champaign-Urbana?

"In my case the packages were not time sensitive, but if someone paid for expensive overnight delivery or were getting a delivery from a food prep service I could see serious repercussions."

Another response from Mike Cooke, of the postal service office in St. Louis: "I certainly understand your desire to have early mail delivery and appreciate being given this opportunity to explain why some customers receive their mail later in the day.

"Carrier delivery routes are established to provide the most efficient delivery pattern possible. Special attention is paid to mail volumes, energy conservation measures and the most efficient use of work hours. All routes are examined periodically and adjusted as changing mail volumes and community growth dictate.

"I regret that it is not possible to provide morning delivery to all of our customers. However, we do provide Post Office Box Service for customers who prefer to receive their mail earlier in the day.

"Most offices receive parcels throughout the day. Very often a shipment will arrive after the carrier has already left the building and is out delivering mail. To enable our customers to track their shipment we scan every parcel every time it arrives at a new location. If a clerk scans a package but inadvertently selects the wrong button on their scanner it can appear online that the package is with the carrier instead of arriving at the delivery unit. The best way to determine the cause is to contact the local Post Office if there is an issue. With the tracking number Postal management will easily be able to determine why a package wasn't delivered.

"The only postal product with a 'Guaranteed' delivery date is 'Priority Express.' At the time of purchase we will let you know what day it will be delivered and the time it will be delivered by. If we tell you noon and the package is delivered at 12:01 we will refund full shipping costs."


Steering committee makeup

"I've been trying to learn more about the process behind the zoning changes that Champaign is working on in the Clark Park area and the Old Town neighborhoods east of Prospect. I understand that the city has been working with a steering committee made up of neighborhood residents. Do you know what the makeup of this committee is? Does it include any renters or people of color?"

Champaign Assistant Planning and Development Director Rob Kowalski provided a list of the residents who assisted on the In-Town Zoning Amendment process — Tod Satterthwaite, Steve Miller, Brenda Koenig, Mark Taylor and Beatrice Pavia — and a summary of the three neighborhood meetings held.

"I don't know for sure if they are all homeowners but I believe they are. The working group was not diverse in terms of race but the three neighborhood meetings used to collect input included a broader range of residents from the neighborhood," he said.More on rural bicycling

"I think what Champaign Township Highway Commissioner Keith Padgett doesn't understand (and the other readers suggesting bicyclists stay off country roads) is that a lot of people in Champaign County ride long distances, train for and compete in bike races, etc. I and a lot of other local riders routinely ride 30 to 100 or more miles on any given ride and average 18 to 22 mph. Where does Mr. Padgett suggest we do that? Through the city of Champaign? Back and forth time and again on the 6.7-mile rail trail? The rail trail is also not conducive to road bikes. Mr. Padgett seems out of touch with reality and doesn't comprehend that cycling is a sport and people aren't just bike-commuting to work or their friend's house. I've been passed far too many times on a country road (and maybe more times within the city) by someone who feels the need to mash on the gas and honk their horn as they pass. It's sad, but it happens all of the time."


Updating "the darn thing"

"Hey, it's been about five days since someone asked about The Golden Corral Restaurant. So here we go, the last word was that the building permit had been processed and only needed to be picked up. Was it ever picked up? When will they start building the darn thing?"

"Nothing new," said Champaign Building Safety Supervisor Larry Happ. "The building permit is still approved and ready to be picked up."


City's parental leave policy

"Champaign has a majority female city council and mayor, and city manager. And many department heads based on the website. Is there any council policy in support of paid parental leave? Does the city offer paid parental leave to new moms and dads that work for the city, and if not, what are they doing to start? Champaign should be a leader in this and start with its own people. "It's not legally required" is not good enough. I expect more from my city."

Amanda Farthing, Champaign's interim human resources director, handled this one: "Parental leave is offered as part of our employee benefits program. Parental leave is available to both mothers and fathers, and is available following birth or adoption, as well as the placement of a child into foster care. It can be taken as a single block of time off or used intermittently, or can be taken as a reduced work schedule, depending on the needs of the new parents and their families. Parental leave is fully paid as long as the employee has accumulated leave time available (sick, vacation, personal, and compensatory time may all be used as pay during parental leave)."


Assessment ad cost

"Every so often the N-G includes a whole section (or two) of the paper with nothing but property assessments. I assume that local government bodies (townships, counties) are required to print this on an annual basis. This is great for The News-Gazette but I assume a heavy expense to taxpayers. Are these printed lists required or could they instead be posted online? How much does it cost the Township/County (taxpayer)?"

According to Champaign County Supervisor of Assessments Paula Bates, publication of property assessments is a statutory requirement: 35 ILCS 200/12-10.

In counties with fewer than 3 million inhabitants, "when the assessment officer has completed the assessment of the county or in the assessment district, he or she shall, in each year of a

general assessment, publish a complete list of the assessments by township.

"Champaign County is divided into four assessment districts, by resolution, for purposes of the general assessment years, so each year complete listings of those townships are published as required by statute. Any other changes by township assessors that are not part of the general reassessment year are also required by statute to be published."

The publication listings are also online at

"The county cost for publications is 80 cents per parcel and the headings are at the newspaper's published rate for advertising. Each year $24,000 to $35,000 is budgeted depending on the parcel counts in the assessment districts or changes by the assessors required to be published," Bates said.


Update on old locomotive testing lab

Our friend Steve Breitwieser at the University of Illinois Facilities & Services office has an update about a story we did in June on the 105-year-old Aeronautical Lab A, originally the Locomotive Testing Labotary near the corner of Springfield and Goodwin in Urbana.

"Crews are scheduled to start taking down the facility beginning this weekend," he said. "The removal of the roof is planned for Saturday, followed by the walls and frame over the next couple of days. The goal is to have the project substantially complete before the beginning of the fall semester."


Former bomb shelter

"Several years ago, the Champaign city government built a bomb shelter in the basement of the City Building. Over the decades, has the facility been upgraded so it would be functional if needed? Or has it been downgraded and is now used for storage of old files, broken office chairs, etc.? Or is it 'frozen in time,' a shrine to debatable priorities and a finely tuned sense of self-importance? Can we get a tour?"

It's a tornado shelter, said City Attorney Fred Stavins and Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt.Until it was refinished in the late 1980s, the area was part of the city's old police station.

"The city received a grant from the federal government to refinish the space as part of an Emergency Operations Center and as a tornado shelter. The City Building basement is a designated tornado shelter. The sign at the main entrance to the City Building states "Tornado shelter lower level of City Building during City business hours."

Daily use of the basement has not changed significantly since the last major City Building renovation in 1987. Current use includes office space, meeting rooms and storage, said Stavins and Schmidt.

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