Listen to this article

This Mailbag is about as crowded as the last start corral for the Illinois Marathon.

Inside: No-Hazardous Cargo routes in Champaign, whether Mark Twain visited Urbana, school administration costs, sanitary sewers in the Rolling Acres subdivision and tree trimming at the Champaign Country Club.

Also, another store closing in Tuscola, real IDs, work on South Prospect and North Lincoln avenues and reclamation costs for solar and wind farms.

Mark Twain in Urbana?

"I've randomly heard from two different people that they believe Mark Twain once visited 307 W. Oregon Street in Urbana, and there is photo of him sitting on the porch. Is there any truth to this story?"

It's possible but unlikely.

"Mark Twain did appear in Champaign at Barrett Hall on December 26, 1871," said Sherrie Bowser, the archives librarian at the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library.

But aside from a story in the Champaign County Gazette in advance of his appearance and a seemingly critical one a week after it, Twain's talk at Barrett Hall went uncovered.

"By Mark Twain's lecture the Young Men's Social Club made $159. The people who heard it are ahead 0," wrote the Gazette.

"These little bits were the only newspaper evidence I could find of his visit. So, I cannot confirm nor deny that he visited 307 W. Oregon," Bowser said.

But given the time of the year, Twain's demanding schedule and the fact that he spoke in Champaign and not Urbana it's unlikely.

A terrific website about Twain contains an exhaustive list of talks that Twain gave from 1856 to 1909, the year before his death.

Twain's appearance in Champaign in December 1871 was part of a long speaking tour he began in Pennsylvania in mid-October and concluded in Connecticut in mid-February 1872. He traveled through Pennsylvania, Delaware, Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, West Virginia and New Jersey, and appears to have delivered a speech nearly every night.

When in Illinois his schedule was:

Dec. 18 — Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, Chicago

Dec. 19 — Union Park Congregational Church, Chicago

Dec. 20 — Sandwich

Dec. 21 — City Hall, Aurora

Dec. 22 — Patterson Hall, Princeton

Dec. 26 — Barrett Hall, Champaign

Dec. 27 — Tuscola

Dec. 28 — Lincoln Hall, Danville

Dec. 29 — Mattoon

Dec. 30 — Paris

In Champaign, Twain supposedly delivered his "Artemus Ward" talk. Here's a link to an Albany Evening Journal story of Nov. 29, 1871, on that particular speech

Real ID

"When renewing driver's license is it recommended for everyone to get the real ID? Or is it just necessary if travel a lot or work in federal buildings?"

The Illinois Secretary of State's office says that you need a real ID if you do not have a valid U.S. passport or passport card and— you use airplanes as a mode of domestic transportation; or

— you visit military bases; or

— you visit secure federal facilities.

Current Illinois drivers licenses are acceptable for domestic airline flights until Oct. 1, 2020.

School district administrative costs

"The News-Gazette ran an editorial on Tuesday, April 23, on a study of Illinois K-12 school districts administrative cost per pupil. The study showed the district-level administration costs at $518 per pupil in Illinois, which reportedly was the second-highest cost in the country. What is the Champaign Unit 4 administration cost per pupil?"

This probably will be an unsatisfactory answer.

The editorial was based on a report by the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council. The report was based on a "Public Education Finances: 2014" report by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Census Report data on administrative costs looked only at individual states and at the 100 largest public elementary-secondary school systems in the United States, so Champaign was not included. The Chicago Public Schools was the only Illinois district in the top 100.

As with a lot of statistical studies, it's good to be skeptical. While the Census Bureau report showed that Illinois school systems spent more on "general administration" than any other state — more than $1 billion — Illinois was No. 4 in another category called "school administration."

Also, Illinois was third, not second, in per pupil "general administration" spending at $518 (behind the District of Columbia and North Dakota. And it was 16th in per pupil "school administration" spending (behind a host of mostly East Coast states).

Finally, the Illinois School Report Cards address administrative costs but in what likely is an unsatisfying way. They only track average administrative salaries — Champaign's is $89,939 compared with the state average of $107,279 — and "general administration" as a percentage of all expenditures.

In Champaign general administration is recorded as 1.9 percent of all expenditures versus the statewide average of 3.1 percent.

In Urbana the average administrator salary was $101,981. General administration was 3 percent of expenditures.

In Danville the average administrator salary was $91,383. General administration was 3.7 percent of expenditures.

In the Mahomet-Seymour district the average administrator salary was $100,935. General administration was 3.6 percent of expenditures.

In the Rantoul Township High School district the average administrator salary was $86,848. General administration was 4.1 percent of expenditures.

In the Rantoul City Schools district the average administrator salary was $90,843. General administration was 4 percent of expenditures.

In the Tolono Unit 7 district the average administrator salary was $100,790. General administration was 2.9 percent of expenditures.

In the St. Joseph-Ogden High School district the average administrator salary was $98,092. General administration was 6.4 percent of expenditures.

In the St. Joseph grade school district the average administrator salary was $125,130. General administration was 3.4 percent of expenditures.

Another outlet mall store closing

"Regarding the Tuscola outlet mall, I was there a couple of weeks ago, and the Bass store is also closing. So I guess the store count will be 26. However, I still had a good shopping experience while I was there."

Yes, an employee at the Bass Factory Outlet store at Tuscola said it too is closing. Its last day is May 5. At this time all merchandise is marked down 50 percent off.

Store makeover

"You may have answered this, but what is going in the old Lazy Boy furniture store in Champaign?"

The building at 506 W. Anthony is being remodeled for Comcast, said Larry Happ, Champaign's building safety supervisor.

Solar and wind farms reclamation costs

"From what I have read the solar panels used for solar energy cannot be recycled or buried in landfills due to components used in each panel. Can you find out how the companies plan to deal with this problem as the panels age?

"Another concern is the massive amount of concrete buried in the ground to support the wind turbines. Will the companies remove this concrete when the turbines quit working in the next few decades? It seems like green energy has its own set of problems for the next generation to address."

One should not assume that solar panels can be put in a landfill, said John Hall, Champaign County's planning and zoning administrator.

"There are tests that can be done to determine if solar panels are safe for the basic landfill or if the panels need to be treated as hazardous waste. On the other hand, solar panels have a very long useful life and the better solar panels have a 25-year warranty," he said. "The technology to recycle solar panels is still developing and the expectation is that by the time that disposal of solar panels

becomes a significant problem there will be a strong market for recycling old panels."

Regarding the concrete footings for wind farm turbines, the Illinois Department of Agriculture Wind Farm Agriculture Impact Mitigation Agreement (and the Champaign County Ordinance) requires removal of the concrete to a depth of five feet as part of decommissioning, Hall said.

And Champaign County ordinances say that solar farm and wind farm site reclamation costs are to be paid by the owner or successors of the solar and wind farms. Most counties have adopted similar ordinances for solar and wind farms, he said.

Many of these requirements are contained in Zoning Ordinance 2018-4 that was passed about a year ago by the county board,

Unusual road sign

"On Country Fair Road and University Avenue (in west Champaign) there is a sign that says 'No HC.' Always wondered what that means as it looks almost handwritten."

The sign is a No Hazardous Cargo sign (which is a standard MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control) sign reinforcing the code prohibition of such traffic on Country Fair Drive between Springfield and University avenues, said Kris Koester, spokesman for the Champaign Public Works department.

"In 1993, city council approved an ordinance to address hazardous materials and environmentally damaging materials as an additional means of protecting storm water and identifying means of cleanup. In this location, installment addressed tanker truck traffic from using this as a shortcut for trucks going to/from the Marathon Oil transfer station (at Springfield and Staley Road) from I-72 to Springfield Avenue," Koester said.

Other streets are identified in the city code where HC transportation is prohibited. They're not signed but are also not logical routes for the other tanker traffic, he said.

The relevant language from the city code:

"No person shall drive, cause to be driven or otherwise bring any tank truck, tank trailer, semi-trailer or other vehicle which transports a placarded cargo or a cargo which should be placarded with the exception of heating fuel oil on any street within the city that is residential in nature. Placarded vehicles are permitted on residential streets designated as state of Illinois or federal highways. In addition placarded vehicles are not permitted on the following streets, avenues or boulevards:

"Wright Street from Springfield Avenue to Armory Avenue; First Street from Springfield Avenue to Church Street; Green Street from Fourth Street to Wright Street; Neil Street from Springfield Avenue to Washington Street; Walnut Street from Neil Street to Washington Street; Market Street from Marshall Street to Main Street; University Avenue from Fourth Street to State Street; Main Street from Chestnut Street to Neil Street; Chester Street from First Street to Neil Street; Church Street from Neil Street to State Street; Country Fair Drive from Springfield Avenue to University Avenue."

Justification for South Prospect project

"Has there been any official explanation as to why the work on Prospect Avenue between Windsor and Curtis roads is necessary or even justifiable? Perhaps the money could have been better used to repair and/or re-stripe existing streets."

Remember that this is a joint project between the city of Champaign and the village of Savoy.

When the Champaign City Council last year discussed its share of the project (about 44 percent) it was noted by the city staff that South Prospect "is currently a deteriorating oil/chip and asphalt arterial road with open ditches."

Also it is partly funded with federal stimulus money approved in the early months of the Obama administration.

"In 2009, the City of Champaign and the Village of Savoy jointly received $305,000 in Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds to be used for the design of improvements to Prospect Avenue between Windsor Road and Curtis Road," said a report to the city council. "By following ARRA guidelines, the project was put in line for future Federal funds to be used for construction.

"One of the requirements of ARRA was that construction of the project begin within 10 years. Failure to do so would obligate the City of Champaign and the Village of Savoy to repay the Federal funds used for design. The project plans and specifications were completed in 2011, ensuring that the project would be 'shovel ready' when construction funds became available."

Sewers in Rolling Acres subdivision

"Will Rolling Acres subdivision ever get rid of septic system and connect to city sewer lines?"

It's unlikely, said Rick Manner, the executive director of the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District. The reason is the expense of building a sanitary sewer system in the unincorporated subdivision south of Champaign.

"There are a number of unincorporated subdivisions around the twin cities that connected directly to Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District (UCSD) sewer system when they were built. These receive UCSD service and bills. This happened occasionally around the 1980s," Manner said. "Building subdivisions this way was prohibited here in 1992.

"There are also a smaller number of subdivisions, like Rolling Acres, that were both unincorporated and built with septic systems in this era. They don't receive either UCSD service or bills. They are unlikely to ever switch to public sewers.

"Unfortunately, because sanitary sewers are usually the deepest infrastructure in a neighborhood, converting from private septic to public sewer is always disruptive and usually prohibitively expensive. Picture how much more complex it would be to try fixing the bottom layer of a 5-layer cake after it is assembled.

"The village of Bondville converted about 175 homes from septic to public sewer. The project cost about $4 million dollars. This cost roughly $25,000 per home. It took several years of work by the village, their consultant and their attorney to coordinate this project. They also received assistance from IEPA that is intended to help un-sewered communities. This reduced the charge by about half, but it still costs $39 per home per month to pay for the debt. And this is charged before the first gallon of user charges are added.

"Looking specifically at Rolling Acres, there have not been any efforts to start this transition. At the same time, there is a UCSD interceptor sewer that is running along the south edge of the subdivision. So the physical construction project may be less expensive for homes in Rolling Acres than it was for Bondville. But the local disruption and costs are unavoidable.

"With that interceptor being adjacent to some homes in Rolling Acres, there is another option that was not available to Bondville. Individual homes or a small group of homes with lots that touch one another and the sewer, may pursue an annexation agreement with UCSD and coordinate a smaller construction project instead of taking on the transition for the whole subdivision. That won't be easy, but it may be a viable option.

"If anybody is interested in considering connecting to UCSD, they can contact the UCSD Engineering Department at 217-367-3409. We will work with them to figure out the details of their individual situation."

Way North Lincoln Avenue

"Do you know what the plan is for Lincoln Avenue extended north of Olympian Drive? That stretch of road was covered with potholes, and it appeared that a company was paving it, but they just put down a recycled asphalt which has left it with a washboard effect. It is worse now, and I was hoping there is a permanent plan in the works."

A change is coming, said Rick Wolken, the highway commissioner for Somer Township, which is north of Urbana.

"We're waiting on a box culvert which we want to put in there too," Wolken said. "We plan to put more milling in there with a paver and get it packed and oiled before everybody drives fast on and it gets it all chattered up. I know that it's a mess."

He hopes to get the box culvert within the next two weeks. Once that's installed he can work on the improved pavement.

"I graded (the road) the other day and I know that that fast traffic gets it all rippled up," he said. "We don't have the budget to do it like I'd like to do it but this is the most economical way to do it."

Ideally, Wolken said, the work will be done by the end of May.

Fairway trimming

"Wondering why Champaign Country Club cut so many lower limbs off very large trees located on many of their fairways off of Prospect Avenue. Was disease involved?

The limbs were removed to get more sunlight and wind onto the fairways to keep the grass healthy, said a country club staff member. The country club property has some 1,700 trees. In recent years all of the ash trees on the property have been removed but those trees along the fairways are healthy.


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).