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Questions for Tom?

Congress and the Legislature may not be doing much but the mailbag staff is working overtime on your queries.

This week's load includes taxi rates, tinted car windows, international drivers, a followup on a state spending scandal, special Illinois Bicentennial license plates, delivery of your daily News-Gazette and Wisconsin primary dates.

Also, Pizza M, Pour Bros., the Aunt Millie's bakery outlet, geese on North Prospect, electronic highway signs, political yard signs and the old antenna atop the Champaign City Building.

Tinted windows

"I am seeing a good number of vehicles with Illinois license plates that have dark(er) tint that is significantly stronger than what is allowed according to the state of Illinois regulations. Furthermore, I see vehicles with dark tint on all windows, including the front windshield. I believe many of these vehicle owners came from other states, where window tint rules are more lax. What are the expectations/priorities involving local sheriffs, city police, and state patrol regarding window tint and determining when/if to pull vehicles over on the tint matter?"

This seems like a significant safety issue, in my opinion, particularly for police officers who have to approach these vehicles with no idea who is inside the car and what they may be doing.

I talked to Sgt. Ryan Cape of the Illinois State Police who said that recent changes to the state law have made it more difficult to enforce because, among other things, officers need a tint meter to evaluate whether a car's windows are too dark and that many officers don't have or don't carry a meter.

There are exemptions for drivers and passengers with a medical treatment who can be helped with tinted windows.

Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, has a bill awaiting a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee that would remove the non-medical exceptions regarding tinted windows "immediately adjacent to each side of the driver."

Bicentennial license plates

"Where is our state bicentennial license plate? Surely the secretary of state's office didn't forget about the significance of the year 2018, right?"

We asked Henry Haupt, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jesse White, for a response.

"It would take legislation as Illinois law specifically requires legislation to create a new license plate," he said. "It is my understanding that the state's Bicentennial Commission discussed working with the Illinois General Assembly to establish a specialty license plate to celebrate the bicentennial, but did not pursue the idea."

"I know that non-migrating Canadian Geese has been a hot topic for past Mailbags, but I have another. Who owns the three retention ponds on North Prospect Avenue in front of Target and Lowe's? And, are they trying to do anything to keep the geese from their parking lots? The same can be said for the retention pond in front of Menard's. I unfortunately saw someone feeding the geese from their car in Menard's this past Sunday."

We made inquiries of the stores that own the lots and the retention ponds (Lowe's and Target) and only Target responded.

"Target owns the land in front of our Champaign, Ill. store that includes a pond that attracts geese. Our practice is to let the geese roam, which is in line with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service laws," said Erin Conroy of Target.

Pour Bros.

"I noticed the 'For Lease' sign has been returned to the front of 40 E. University. Have the Pour Brothers changed their tune about coming to Champaign?"

Au contraire.

Work on the first floor, where Peoria Heights-based Pour Bros. Tap Room will locate, is underway. The second floor may potentially be occupied by multiple residents.

Rob Mathisen of Pour Bros. was in town this week to check on construction.

Pizza M

"Any update on when Pizza M will reopen in Urbana. Is there still a brick oven pizza restaurant in downtown Champaign?

Pizza M will reopen on Griggs Street in Urbana in "a couple of months," operator Matt Kittzmiller said.

"We've got a lot of work to do," he said

He urged fans to watch the Pizza M's Facebook page.

And yes, Pizzeria Antica in downtown Champaign is open at 10 E. Chester St., directly north of the Champaign City Building.

Aunt Millie's outlet

"I pulled up to Aunt Millie's Bread Outlet at Prospect and (Bloomington Road) only to find it dark, empty and vacant. There was no sign stating that they had relocated. Can you tell me why they closed and if there is another bread outlet in C-U."

Aunt Millie's Bakeries, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., closed its Champaign store because it was not profitable, said customer service representative Nancy Schlatter.

"The response I have been given from the senior district manager is the rent was high and the store was not profitable in that location. We are always looking for thrift store locations and if a better location becomes available we would consider it," she said.

The nearest Aunt Millie's outlet store is 94 miles away in Lafayette, Ind. There's also at Hostess Brands outlet store in Bloomington at 905 Martin Luther King Drive.

Political signs restriction

"Isn't there a 24-hour rule on political signs? I thought those were supposed to come down within 24 hours of an election."

There is no prohibition in the city ordinances in Champaign or Urbana requiring political yard signs to come down within 24 hours of an election.

International drivers

"I was wondering if the international members of our community are required to take any sort of driver education course or pass the state driving exam before taking to the wheel on public roadways? Or can they legally drive under a foreign license from their home country where the laws, rules, and even signage could differ significantly from ours?"

Illinois law (625 ILCS 5/6-102) (from Ch. 95 1 / 2, par. 6-102) allows a person to drive on their home-country license, said Henry Haupt of the secretary of state's office.

Here's the statute: "What persons are exempt. The following persons are exempt from the requirements of Section 6-101 and are not required to have an Illinois drivers license or permit if one or more of the following qualifying exemptions are met and apply:

"2. A nonresident who has in his immediate possession a valid license issued to him in his home state or country may operate a motor vehicle for which he is licensed for the period during which he is in this State.

"3. A nonresident and his spouse and children living with him who is a student at a college or university in Illinois who have a valid license issued by their home State."

NRI program

"Any information on whether there is any actual ongoing investigation into the 50-some million taxpayer dollars former Gov. Quinn gave to Chicago neighborhood program just before his last election? I have not seen anything on this and we were just wondering if this has now been dropped completely."

The issue has not disappeared, said state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, who was one of the legislators most aggressive in seeking answers about the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, a program designed to reduce risk factors associated with violence in 23 communities in Cook County. NRI got $54.55 million from the state in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, according to a state audit.

"If you recall," said Barickman, "the members of the Legislative Audit Commission (LAC), which I serve as the co-chair of, spent months reviewing the audit that covered the first two years of the program. The audit found that the program was hastily implemented in the weeks before an election, lacked proper controls and transparency, and that the anti-violence program wasn't necessarily even targeting some of Chicago's most dangerous neighborhoods. In addition, the program was created and implemented in a way that allowed it to avoid proper legislative oversight."During that time, the federal prosecutor's office began looking into issues involving grantees and spending related to the program. As far as I know, no charges have been filed at this time, and unfortunately the federal prosecutors don't announce findings.

"Recently the LAC reviewed the audit of the second two years of the NRI program. This audit concluded many of the same issues, that proper rules and guidelines were not followed. In one case, an individual's testimony indicated that someone from former Governor Quinn's administration ordered them to ignore certain rules.

"This type of wasteful spending not only takes funding away from other programs, but it it deals a severe blow to the faith that taxpayers should be able to have that their government is spending their money wisely. I have been working with colleagues from the LAC to develop bipartisan legislation aimed at preventing this type of waste and fraud in government programs. I hope to be able to advance that legislation before the end of the regular spring session.

"According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, the agency charged with recovering unexpended and misspent NRI funds on behalf of the now-defunct Illinois Violence Prevention Authority, $4,030,818 in NRI program funds have been recovered.

"The Illinois Auditor General reported a total of approximately $1.77 million in site-tested, questioned funds by several lead and provider grant recipients. Of that, ICJIA substantiated approximately $759,000 as properly spent and therefore not subject to recovery; $310,886 has been recouped to date; and approximately $623,000 was uncollectible because the recipient agencies have dissolved.

"Separately, ICJIA has recouped $3,719,932 in funds that were unexpended by NRI grantees. Recovery efforts remain ongoing."

News-Gazette delivery

"Can you explain how delivery of The News-Gazette works? Several months ago, porch delivery was ended. If requested a paper could be put in an orange paper tube, otherwise, the paper would be at the end of the driveway on the ground. In our neighborhood, I see papers in the tubes, papers at the end of the driveway, papers in the middle of the driveway, and some by garages. I've also heard that you can pay extra to have it delivered on your porch. It seems like all these different spots would slow the carrier down. Why was this change made anyway?"

News-Gazette Media CEO John Reed has your answer:

"Thanks for the question. As our business continues to evolve, we're increasingly dealing with two important factors that impact our delivery operations. The first is our ability to retain carriers, and the second is ensuring timely delivery of the newspapers both of which go hand-in-hand. Driveway delivery has long been a standard in other parts of the country. Locally, it has also been the standard for publications like the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. Simply put, it takes meaningfully less time for a carrier to deliver a route if they don't have to exit their vehicle. This helps the carriers complete routes in less time, which in turn helps us keep those carriers on the routes.

"Delivering newspapers sounds like an easy enough job, but like any other it has its pitfalls. The dark of night, inclement weather, trips and falls while walking to a porch are some of the more unpleasant parts of the job. Driveway delivery mitigates a number of these issues, and helps keep the carriers safer by reducing their exposure to potential accidents or injuries.

"With respect to the different locations you're seeing, it's likely the carrier doing the best they can to get the paper where the customer wants it while staying inside their vehicle.

"When we initially started the move away from porch delivery a couple of years ago, we extended subscribers the option to pay an extra fee — all of which was passed through to the carrier — to maintain their porch delivery. As we move forward with converting additional routes to driveway delivery we're revisiting that policy. Unfortunately, even a handful of customers on a route that prefer porch delivery has the unfortunate side effect of subverting the aforementioned benefits of driveway delivery.

"I understand that this change is viewed as overly burdensome to some of our loyal subscribers. I've heard from several of them. Like any business, though, we have to focus on doing the greatest good for the largest number of our customers. Driveway delivery represents the best balance between consistent, timely delivery and carrier safety."

Electronic highway signs

"Why aren't the electronic signs on the interstates used more often? Seems they cost a lot of money, but seldom have messages on them. I would think 'Good morning' and 'Be safe' would be better than nothing."

"The Illinois Department of Transportation has an extensive policy that outlines the use of its DMSs (dynamic message signs) across the state, said Kensil Garnett, the Region 3 engineer for IDOT. "Primarily, these devices were installed in strategic locations to advise motorists with messages relating to critical situations downstream.

"A hierarchy of importance was established that places Homeland Security and Natural Disaster related messages at the top. Below that, messages pertaining to lane blockages or closures for construction or traffic incidents (crashes) are more common.

"The Department also utilizes these signs for safety campaigns like Work Zone Safety Awareness week and 'Click It Or Ticket,' Amber Alerts and other general safety alerts. The blank, or 'idle,' message has a higher priority than general safety campaigns. When motorists see an idle sign, the message is that all is clear ahead.

"This hierarchy was carefully developed to establish a trust and attention to these signs. One root theory is that if the signs always have something on them, motorists will start to ignore them. However, if the signs are typically in idle, motorists will pay more attention when a message is displayed."

"Is the antenna on the Champaign City Building functional or get much use?"

"Thanks for the inquiry," said Jeff Hamilton, the communications manager for the city of Champaign. "The radio antenna located on top of the Champaign City Building was used for public safety communications for many years. Over the years radio technologies changed and the antenna is not currently in service."

Champaign tax rates up

"New apartment buildings are popping up in Champaign like toadstools, leading one to believe that the city has decided to leave no green space or empty lot undeveloped for multi-family housing. With all those new residential buildings going up are the property taxes on my owner-occupied single family home going to go down? Seems like the apartment buildings should be adding a whopping amount to the property tax base."

Deb Pressey's story in Thursday's News-Gazette — — stole the thunder from this question and answer but we'll go ahead with it anyway.

Property tax bills will come out, as usual, in a couple of weeks.

And your bill will depend partly on the assessed valuation of your property and whether it has increased.

But one part of your tax bill is about to increase as the tax rate increases for the Champaign school district, approved last year by voters to pay for a big building program, takes effect.

That rate will cost the owner of a $150,000 home about $334 more a year.

The new tax rate for residents in the school district is $5.0299 (round it off to $5.03 per $100 of assessed valuation).

That's up from last year's rate of $4.2704 per $100 of assessed valuation.

Even with the increase, though, the Champaign schools' rate is less than Urbana's, which is $5.96 this year.

The total tax rates for Champaign and Urbana have not been calculated yet, but will be soon.

Endpoint of Illinois 130

"I've always wondered why the north endpoint of Illinois 130 is located at the University Avenue exit/entry of I-74 in Urbana. It seems strange to end the highway at a point where a driver has no choice but go east or west on the interstate. Why not end 130 at the junction with 150? Or end it where 130/150 meets University?"

"In the past when a route ended near more than one marked route, we always took it to the highest designated route in the area," said Kensil Garnett at IDOT. "In this case it would be I-74. A similar situation is in Paris, where Illinois 16 ends at US 150 although it could easily end at Illinois 133. There are only a few of these situations in District 5."

Survey markings on I-74

"I noticed survey stakes and markings on I-74 west of Champaign. Is there an upcoming project planned that has not yet been reported in the newspaper?"

Nope, says Garnett.

"A few weeks ago we had a local property owner wanting right of way information for his property east of the first township road over I-74 east of Prairie View interchange," he said. "We provided information for that property owner but we staked nothing on the interstate."

South State Street building

"This is a follow-up to a previous inquiry of mi

ne regarding the small brick apartment building on the corner of John and State streets in Champaign. There had been a fire in this building some time ago, and you were able to tell me about the city's requirement that the building windows and doors be secured. Currently, there are several open windows — no glass or any covering — that leave the interior of the building exposed to the weather. Do you have any further information about the plans for this property?"

David Oliver, code compliance officer for Champaign's neighborhood services department, offers his thanks for your observation and notification.

"The owner had previously removed the securing boards and replaced damaged doors and windows. The property maintenance inspector went by today and confirmed some of the upper story windows were missing," he said. "A housing violation notice was issued today for replacement of the missing windows and we were able to contact the owner to inform them of the notice they would receive. We are not aware of any plans for rehabilitation or future use at this time other than keeping the building secure."

Taxicab rates

"As part of a recent trip, my wife and I used licensed taxi services to and from our home and Willard Airport. The trip to the airport was $16 (plus tip) for the two of us. (Reserved in advance for a 5:30 AM pickup.) The return was $14 each ($28 total plus tip). We've never experienced such a disparity in rates and were surprised (shocked!) by the return fare. (Both taxi rides were less than 6 miles each.) I've tried to locate the Champaign-Urbana approved taxi rates without success. Would you be able to help clarify the rules, regulations, and rates for taxi services in our community?"The cities of Urbana and Champaign have a combined licensing process.

There is no city-approved taxi rate.

The cities do require cab companies to file a rate chart "listing all methods used to calculate fares and any additional charges for carrying extra persons, luggage and parcels.

"Acceptable methods of charge are: taximeter, per person, mileage, flat, hourly or zone. If you charge by zone you must use the zone chart and map that the city supplies."

The method of charge must be posted conspicuously in the cab and agreed upon with the passenger before accepting the fare.

Wisconsin primary

"In the coverage of Paul Ryan deciding not to run for re-election, I haven't come upon the answer to this question: Has Wisconsin's primary already taken place? What is the deadline for another candidate to gather signature and get on the primary ballot/November ballot?"

Say what you will about Wisconsin, but at least they know the right time to hold an election, when the weather is more suitable for voting.

According to the Wisconsin Elections Commission the 2018 partisan primary is Aug. 14 with voting from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The first day to circulate nomination papers is April 15. The filing deadline is 5 p.m. on June 1.

Illini unis

"When will the new Illini football jerseys will be available for purchase? Also, will all of the colors (navy, orange, white) be sold to the general public?"

Kent Brown, the associate athletic director for media relations, said there isn’t an exact date yet, "but Nike is making a blue replica jersey that is supposed to be in stores before the start of the football season — usually around Aug. 1. For this year, blue is the only replica Nike is producing."


Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).