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Happy 5th birthday to the Mailbag, which debuted Dec. 21, 2013, with this question: "With the Peoria schools once again in the Big 12, how about some history on the Big 12 Conference?"

Quite an ominous beginning to a little feature that has expanded into deeper topics, such as "When will the Golden Corral open?"

I jest, a little. There, of course, have been meatier questions about crime, public policy, government waste and even items that have gone to the Illinois attorney general's office, such as our still-unresolved appeal to find out why a study commissioned by the city of Urbana about cracks in the Windsor Road pavement has never been released to the public.

The Mailbag was the brainchild of Jim Rossow, a guy with a million ideas who is always trying to make the newspaper more interesting. He gets whatever credit is due to the Mailbag.

This week's episode includes a compelling opinion from a former Champaign police chief about the street violence in Champaign, an answer to a question about Ameren smart meter technology, a look at a fan-favored technology that was too costly for the University of Illinois' athletics department to continue and a query about the federal death penalty.

Former chief on Champaign shootings

"When I continue to watch the violent crime rates rise in Champaign, I wonder what other past police chiefs might recommend. Any currently around or still in the business? I had heard that Chief (R.T.) Finney was working somewhere in the area. How about other area retired chiefs? I think at least Finney had a lower crime rate."

I contacted Finney, who was Champaign police chief from 2003 to 2012, and who joked that someone must be watching his LinkedIn status.

He said that because he's serving as interim police chief in Moline although he still resides in Champaign.

"I am very aware of the increased shootings in Champaign, as well as the increase of shootings in Bloomington, Peoria, and now the Quad Cities," he said. "The homicide rates in these areas have gone from single to double digits in a few short years. However if you look at their other crime stats, property and violence outside of homicide, it paints a slightly different story.

"The perception of crime rarely matches the reality of crime, but when a city is experiencing the level of violence from young people that Champaign and other cities across Illinois are experiencing, it is hard to remain confident that all that can be done is being done.

"My tenure did not have lower crime stats. We experienced the same ebbs and flows that (Champaign Police) Chief (Anthony) Cobb is experiencing. And like Chief Cobb, when an issue of crime came up, we worked with our community to resolve it. The men and women of the Champaign Police Department work very hard to adjust their tactics and processes to address crime issues, and the continued level of violence is a very complicated and complex issue.

"The answer to this rise in shootings is more in the community's hands than the police. If the affected community doesn't do their part to stop these shootings, then you can't expect the police to solve it by themselves. They cannot continue to remain silent and blame it on mistrust of the police and you cannot start the healing until you stop the killing.

"The police have a defined role in this issue and they are doing their job. This issue starts in the home, the schools and then the community. No amount of community policing programs are going to stop a 15-year-old from an impulsive response of shooting into a crowd. That level of values and morals was neglected, at a minimum, of 10 years prior to the shooting. That is squarely at the feet of the family.

"To say nothing is condoning the act."

Mysterious electronics

"I see these antenna scattered around the rural area. They may be in town as well. Most often it's just one with the antenna pointing down like the one pictured on the left side of the pole. Saw this one Saturday with three together. Can you tell me what this is? Some have said it has something to do with 4G."

Victoria Busch, a spokeswoman for Ameren Illinois, said the devices are routers used by Ameren to support its smart metering system.

"The one on the left, that's our newest one," she said. "The one on the right with the two antennas coming down from it, that's the existing system for our AMR, the automated meter reading system. This helps communicate the energy usage data back to Ameren."

But it doesn't allow for two-way communication, such as software updates, from Ameren back to the routers and individual meters like the device on the left, she said.

"By the end of 2019 our goal is to have our systems completed entirely to the smarter technology," she said. "We started in June 2014 with he device you see on the left. The device on the right is the older technology, which is automated, but it only had one-way communication."

The devices in the image you included serve multiple households, Busch said. More than a million electric meters have been upgrade by Ameren, she said, and about 500,000 natural gas meters.

Danville traffic cameras

"I was wondering who monitors the cameras on top of some particular traffic lights. Some on East Main Street in Danville have cameras. Also Gilbert at 4th Street. Would IDOT have access to these?"

"There are two different types of cameras that the department has in this area," said Kensil Garnett, the always-cooperative Region 3 engineer for the Illinois Department of Transportation. "Video detection cameras, like those mounted on the mast arms at the signalized intersections at Gilbert Street at Fourth Street provide information to the signal controllers to help maximize the efficiency of the signal timing and coordination plans."Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) cameras, like those installed at Main Street and Gilbert Street and at Main Street and Bowman Avenue, were installed for traffic monitoring purposes. Primarily, the PTZ cameras are used to monitor traffic during peak volume times or when adjustments are made to the signal timing plans. They can also be used to assist with emergency response efforts when there is a traffic related incident."

Roadkill disposal

"I'm curious how Urbana and Champaign handle the collection of roadkill on streets, shoulders, and ditches. Today I noticed a truck (didn't catch the logo on it but assuming it was a city of Urbana vehicle) on Windsor Road between Race Street and Lincoln Avenue, and two workers were tossing a deer carcass into the back, on top of two other deer carcasses already in the truck. That adds up to quite of lot of dead meat. Just wondering how often they make the rounds for roadkill, what determines which roadkill is collected, and how these dead animals are then disposed of?"

I checked with Urbana Public Works and John Collins, the operations manager for the department, got right back:

"The majority of issues with dead animals go to the police department," he said. "They have a contractor they call to remove these; however, they can't handle animals the size of deer or large dogs.

"Public works will take care of bigger animals but only when we are made aware of it and when they are on city rights of way. We do not make rounds looking for dead animals. All dead animals go to the landfill unless someone wants it for the meat or hide. We seem to collect a lot of dead deer from Windsor Road and South Race Street."

Great experience, but it cost a lot

"I loved it when we used a phone app at the Illini basketball games during player introductions. Everyone held their cell phone up and lights were flashing in the dark all over State Farm Center. I feel it got the crowd involved and excited. Why isn't this still being done?"

It's a matter of cost, explained Kent Brown, the Illinois associate athletic director for media relations.

"The phone app used for this became cost prohibitive for our marketing budget. It costs more than $20,000 each season to use the app and the technology that goes with it," he said. "I, too, thought it was a great effect inside State Farm Center, but this was one of those decisions we have to make when deciding the best use of resources."

"If Brendt Christensen's trial proceeds as a federal case and he were to be subject to the death penalty, where would the punishment be carried out given that Illinois no longer has capital punishment?"

It would occur about 95 miles away at what is called the Federal Correctional Institution Terre Haute. That is the facility where nearly all male federal death row inmates are held. The federal execution chamber — where Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — is at the prison. The female death row is at the Federal Medical Center, FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

Conservation District zoning

"About a year ago, the city was considering changing the zoning code to increase the possible house size in the Clark Park neighborhood. About six months later, the planning department proposed this change apply city-wide. What is the latest proposal, and when is it to come before the city council for a vote?

"Also, in response to the proposed increase in home size in the Clark Park neighborhood, a group of residents organized and advocated to make their neighborhood a 'conservation district' to override the proposed zoning change. Where is this in process, and has a date been set for it to come before the city council?"

The zoning change that was proposed was always a change to the requirements in SF-1 Zoning citywide, said Bruce Knight, Champaign's planning and development director.

"It was in a section of the ordinance addressing existing lots that were less than 60-feet wide (the minimum in SF-1 Zoning). That section already allowed an encroachment into the side yard setback and the proposal was to allow a somewhat larger Floor Area Ratio on such lots as well," he said. "When it became clear that there were significant concerns about the proposal it was tabled by city council and direction provided to work on a different solution. That work has been set aside until the Conservation District proposal plays out."

The conservation district was considered at two lengthy public hearings at plan commission and it voted 6-1 to recommend denial of the proposal, he said.

"That vote will require that city council have six affirmative votes to approve it. The council will consider it at its Jan. 15 regular meeting," he said.

More book drop off locations wanted

"I'd like to give a great big thank you to the Champaign Public Library for its auto-renew program. It's saved us a lot of late fees already. My question is, have either the Champaign or Urbana libraries considered providing more drop off locations for returns other than the library branches? The Normal Public Library provided four additional drop off locations when we lived there, and it was wonderfully convenient."

Champaign Library Director Donna Pittman noted there are "outdoor and indoor returns at the main library and Douglass Branch Library.

"We are not planning additional drop off locations as this would require considerable staff time to empty bins and transport items. It would also require a delivery vehicle which we do not currently have."

Celeste Choate, executive director of the Urbana Free Library, said that neither her nor any of her library colleagues had received requests for additional drop off sites. Patrons are told that they can drop off Urbana library materials at the Champaign libraries and vice versa.

"I can tell you that The Urbana Free Library has had a partnership for years with the Urbana Middle School and Urbana High School," Choate added. "After students return materials in bins there, the materials are returned to the library twice a week and checked in here: https://urbanafreelibrary.org/my-card/return-items. We are working on getting this return service in the elementary schools, too!"

School bus law on four-lane roadway

"This morning I saw a bus stopped to pick up children at Westgate Apartments on Bradley Avenue. A bus approached from the opposite direction on Bradley, and passed the bus that was picking up children, even though the stop arm was out and the red lights were flashing. I see this happen quite often at this location. Do school buses not have to follow the traffic laws of not passing a bus when the stop arm is out?"

School buses have to stop like all other vehicles when it's a two-lane roadway or when it's a one-way roadway. But the law is different for four-lane roadways like Bradley Avenue.

Here's the citation from Henry Haupt with the Illinois Secretary of State's office:

"625 ILCS 5/11-1414

(e) The driver of a vehicle upon a highway having 4 or more lanes which permits at least 2 lanes of traffic to travel in opposite directions need not stop such vehicle upon meeting a school bus which is stopped in the opposing roadway; and need not stop such vehicle when driving upon a controlled access highway when passing a school bus traveling in either direction that is stopped in a loading zone adjacent to the surfaced or improved part of the controlled access highway where pedestrians are not permitted to cross."

Foreign robo-calls

"What is it with all these Chinese-sounding robocalls I've been receiving lately from a woman with a stern voice? At first I thought that perhaps someone was trying to reach the Chinese students at UIUC, but then I heard reports of people across the country being bombarded with them too."

You are not alone. And, yes, those calls aren't going just to Champaign-Urbana.

The Federal Trade Commission warned consumers last spring about what it says is a scam.

"Have you gotten a call from someone saying they're from a Chinese Consulate office? If so, you're not alone — based on reports to the FTC and the real Chinese Consulates," the agency said in April. "But here's the thing: it's not a Chinese Consulate office calling. It's a scammer. These callers seem to be reaching people with Chinese last names but, as we know, scammers can change tactics quickly.

"Here's what's happening now: people across the country have reported getting a call or message saying they have to pick up a package at the Chinese Consulate office. Or they need you to give them information to avoid being in trouble with the Chinese Consulate. Then the caller asks for your bank or credit card information, or tells you to make a bank transfer to them.

"Regardless of who you are or who says they're calling, never send money to anyone who calls and asks you to send it. Never give your Social Security number, your bank or credit card number, or other sensitive information to anyone who calls and asks for it. Same thing if they email or message you through a social media platform such as WeChat: just don't respond. That's a scam. And neither the real Chinese Consulates, nor the Chinese Embassy, will ever call you to ask for money."

If you get the call the FTC recommends you hang up and tell the FTC.

"If you have business with the real Chinese Consulate and you're worried, contact the real Chinese Consulate by looking up your local office's number. But whatever you do, don't give out your information — or your money — to anyone who contacts you out of the blue."

Columnist

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