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).

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Questions this week about early closings at some restaurants, Panda Express reopening, Crane Alley reopens. Also, fighting dogs, newly placed nest boxes for birds, dogs sitting on motorists' laps and library landscaping.

And the history of the Garwood Home, the car wash at Napleton's Auto Park, the cost of the Champaign high schools' graduation ceremony stage, school bus drivers needed and Unit 4 property tax increases.


"I believe I am seeing a lot more operators of motor vehicles driving around with dogs in their lap. That can't possibly be legal, can it?"

In Illinois, there is no state law indicating how or in what manner a pet may occupy a vehicle traveling on the roadway, said Sgt. Delila Garcia of the public information office of the Illinois State Police.

"So to answer your specific question, it is not illegal to drive with a dog in a driver’s lap," said Garcia. "However, the Illinois State Police would like to remind motorists that distractions come in many forms, many of which are not  against the law.

"It is important for drivers to minimize distractions within the vehicle and stay focused on the task of driving to ensure the safety of the driver, the dog, and all those sharing the roadway."

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New bird houses

"I've noticed new bird houses on the north side of Curtis Road along a UI field and along north Cottonwood Road across from Trelease Woods. Does the UI have some research project regarding birds ongoing?"

T.J. Benson, a senior wildlife ecologist at the Illinois Nature History Survey and a research associate professor at the UI, said those nest boxes are his. They are being used to conduct various research projects, primarily involving tree swallows and eastern bluebirds.

He and others will be using the nest boxes to study reproductive biology, incubation behavior and the diets of various birds in different settings.

He and others started placing the boxes in March and are continuing to do so, mostly on the south farms but also at Trelease Woods, northeast of Urbana, and the nearby Phillips Tract.

Circle K site

"Can you find out what will become of the Circle K building at Bradley and Prospect?"

The property is still owned by Mac's Convenience Stores LLC of Columbus, Ind., which is a subsidiary of Circle K and owns thousands of Circle K stores in the United States.

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The stately front of the Garwood Home in Champaign is illuminated by the porch lights on Tuesday March 12, 2002. 

Garwood Home history

"Who built the Garwood Home on North Market Street (and when), and what was its occupancy history?"

The Garwood Home at 1515 N. Market St. was built for $15,000 in 1903 from most of the estate of Lanson Curtis Garwood, a successful Champaign jeweler who had died in 1899. Under the terms of his will, he wanted to provide a building, grounds and endowment to fund a home for elderly, professional women who had lived at least five consecutive years in the Champaign-Urbana community.

When built the home and grounds were well outside of Champaign and some of the women who lived there would tend to vegetable gardens or the livestock on the property.

"During the summer season," said a 1948 News-Gazette story on the home, "a large garden supervised by the superintendent provides fresh vegetables and fruit for daily use and for canning.

"The home maintains a small dairy, stock and poultry farm from which it derives fresh milk and cream, eggs and chickens and some meat. When hogs are butchered in the fall some of the pork is stored in lockers and kept for use during the winter."

In 1963, after the death of a donor who left money for an expansion of the home so it could admit men, the capacity of the Garwood Home increased from the 15 to 34 residents.

The home, which was organized as a not for profit, closed in 2002 because of financial problems. The property was sold to the nearby Human Kinetics publishing company.

"We're running at a loss and you can only do that for so long," Hank Spies, a Garwood Home board member, said at the time. Residents were paying about $1,300 a month for room and board, significantly less than other nearby shelter care facilities.

Today the Martens Center at Human Kinetics Park is under construction on the site of the former Garwood Home.

Car wash blues

"Is Napleton's car wash ever going to get fixed and open again?"

Michael Spilotro, general manager at Napleton's, said they hope to have the car wash reopened by July 1.

It hasn't been easy, he said, because of a balky supply chain for needed parts and sharp cost increases. It's a lament familiar to those in construction, automobiles and other industries.

"We have to be smart but at the same time we don't want to lose face with a community we depend on or an individual customer," he said. "We want to have the service but nothing would align for us. We have a sort of happy medium now to serve our customers but we're probably going to end up spending this money again in a year or two to get it replaced. Hopefully by then pricing comes back to normal."

American Rescue Plan money

"I read with interest Champaign County received $40 million in American Rescue Plan funding. Is there a list of all the stimulus given to residents, towns, county, and the state, divided by the population? I’m specifically wondering the total dispersed to our area."

Here's the link for information on counties and municipalities that will receive ARP funds ...

Among area municipalities getting ARP funds are:

Bloomington — $13.38 million

Champaign — $25.57 million

Danville — $24.7 million

Decatur — $33.8 million

Normal — $10.87 million

Rantoul — $8 million

Urbana — $12.9 million

Fast food labor shortage

"I passed the Arby’s on Prospect Avenue the other night and the lights were off at 7 p.m. Tell me it’s not closed for good."

It's not closed for good. Like many area fast food shops and restaurants, Arby's is having staffing issues and has had to close early at 7 p.m.

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Library landscaping

"Who did the landscaping in the parking lot of the Champaign library? I remember it being put in a few years ago, and it's growing in very nicely."

"The library's 'green parking lot is not only visually pleasing, it is also good for the environment, as it reduces the heat island effect with the shading of cars and pavement." said Champaign Public Library Director Donna Pittman. "The original parking lot landscaping was done by Prochnow Landscaping in Bloomington as part of the library building project.

"In 2014-2015, Country Arbors, located east of Urbana, refreshed the parking lot islands with grasses and other perennials."

Police and dogs

"There was a shooting earlier this week at John and Crescent in Champaign. I remember in 2012 there being an incident where Champaign Police Officer Andre Davis abruptly discharged his firearm seven times at two dogs involved in the aftermath of a fight, killing the dog that was not on the attacking end. This led to the family suing this police officer. The family ended up losing the lawsuit, but one thing I found interesting is that one of the reasons the officer gave as to why he shot the wrong dog was because of his 'color blindness.'

"Chief Cobb made mention that his officers would be receiving more in depth training on how to handle situations pertaining to potentially dangerous dogs. I just wanted to know if that training ever took place, and where I would be able to find it so I can analyze it. Also, are police still allowed on the force when they are color blind?"

"In 2013, following the incident, an expert did provide training to the police department on how to handle dangerous encounters with animals," said Champaign Police Department spokesman Tom Yelich. "Additionally, the department changed its use of force policy (1.3.6-C) regarding dangerous animals.

"The policy is now clear that an animal must present an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm to a person prior to deadly force being used. The use of force policy is available on the police department's website for review. As it relates to your question about color blindness, individuals are assessed prior to employment with the police department by a medical professional who ultimately determines if they are fit for duty."

Panda Express return?

"Does Panda Express plan to reopen its (Green & Wright) location? Web searches provide conflicting information, with some sources saying they closed temporarily last year and some saying they’re permanently closed."

"The location has been closed but a reopening is planned in the next month or two, although that timing is subject to change," said Aileen Donovan, an account supervisor at Havas Street in El Segundo, Calif., which handles public relations for Panda Express.

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School bus drivers needed

"I have seen yellow school buses on at least two corners in Champaign advertising for school bus drivers — by Home Depot and by the old bank building at Mattis & Springfield. Is this something new?"

The Champaign school district is seeking bus drivers and aides, said Stacey Moore, chief communications officer for the district.

"The buses are being used to let our community know of the need to fill these vital positions that serve our amazing students. The school buses will be moved to different areas around the city this summer. If anyone is interested, please apply at," she said.

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Graduation ceremonies stage

"How much did Unit 4 pay to rent the outdoor stage from Ohio for the two high school graduations? Was it a no-bid contract?"

"Identifying and organizing a graduation event this year was a significant challenge for the District. It was imperative that Unit 4 provide an event that honored our graduates who experienced one of — if not the most — difficult senior years of any class in a generation," said Moore. "We were further cognizant of the ever-evolving State health regulations that posed additional planning challenges.

"The typical graduation venues the District utilizes were not available this year and, as a result, the District had to be creative utilizing its own outdoor space. We also had very little time to plan the complicated logistics of the event. Despite these challenges, the event was an enormous success for our graduates, their families and the community.

"While the contract with Pagetech Limited did include staging, Pagetech employees were essential due to their familiarity with the intricate technology equipment involved. Further, the contract, which was just over $25,000 (the typical bidding threshold), was exempt from bidding under several exceptions under Section 10-20.21 of the School Code, including contracts for software and interconnect equipment and contracts for the services of individuals possessing a high degree of skill."

Champaign schools taxes and finances

"I have always supported the Champaign schools but at a time when so many people have struggled financially, I was surprised and very disappointed to see the increase in their total tax rate this year.

"I attended a presentation before their referendum where they handed out information that their total tax rate would not exceed $5.05 if the referendum passed. School board members continued to voice their commitment to that promise and looking back, they have always honored it in the past.

"This year though, they made the decision to allow the total tax rate to increase to $5.13. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that this is happening at the same time that they have also decided to add a very large amount to the construction at old Carrie Busey.

"Back then, they said they were going to do $208,400,000 worth of projects by financing $183,400,000 through the referendum and using $25,000,000 from their operating reserves. Are those numbers still the same or have they changed? And why have they chosen to increase their total tax rate well above what they had promised when they were asking for the community’s support?"

Stacey Moore again:

"The District has continued to uphold its promise to taxpayers regarding the effect of the 2016 referendum and the effect on taxpayers' bond and interest tax levy and extension amounts. The chart below documents the details of the District’s Bond and Interest Levy and the taxes extended to repay outstanding bonds. As promised, the amount of the bond and interest levy has not increased, and future debt service payments will be approximately equal to what they have been historically as noted in the chart below.

"The increases in the District’s 2020 property tax levy are attributable to the natural effects of the property tax cap legislation, which effect the extension of taxes for the District’s operating (non-bond and interest) accounts. Illinois Property Tax Cap legislation generally involves three main components. The first component is the December CPI (Consumer Price Index) which is published in January each year and is applicable to the calculation of taxes extended in the following year. The second component involves any changes in the reassessment of existing property as determined by local and county township assessment offices. Reassessment of property occurs throughout the year with final valuations established each December and published the following Spring. The final component involves the value of new construction property as determined by local and county township assessment offices. The new construction information is also established each December and is also published the following Spring. Another factor in the Property Tax Extension Limitation Law includes the reduction in property values that occur when property owners protest their assessments with the County Board of Review and the State of Illinois Department of Revenues Property Tax Appeals Board. It is important to note that the majority of information required to accurately estimate property taxes is not known until after the District is statutorily required to submit their final operating tax levy to the County Clerk. The levy must be submitted in December following a preliminary hearing and publication of the proposed levy in early November. In essence, the District is required to establish its levy before it actually knows what the components to the calculation will be based on the best information available at the time.

"The Property Tax Extension Limitation Law establishes several required public notice periods and public hearing opportunities for taxpayers to provide input and information relative to any extension of taxes by the District. This includes a public description of the tax levy and the assumptions at a public Board meeting, providing a 30-day public notice and inspection period, and a public hearing prior to the Board adopting the levy at a second public meeting. The District also presented additional property tax levy information at its Finance Committee meetings which are also open meetings available to the public.

"The 8-cent increase between the 2019 property tax levy and the 2020 property tax levy is not due to any changes in the District’s promises relative to the referendum. The bond and interest levy is not increasing, nor is the amount being extended for debt repayment. The 8-cent increase in the total tax rate is due to the nature of the calculations contained in the property tax cap legislation, and the timing of information available as it completes the annual property tax levy adoption process."

Shabby sidewalks

"I noticed, while walking down Springfield Avenue in front of the Grainger Library on campus, that the sidewalks are in awful shape, destroyed in some cases. Is the University aware, and are there plans to fix this?"

"Yes," said Steve Breitwieser, spokesman for UI Facilities & Services. "The south side of Springfield Avenue in front of the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center is scheduled for a significant improvement project during the next academic year.

"The future work will include the removal of the former bike pathway with turf replacement and the repair of existing sidewalk areas using a combination of new concrete and sustainable permeable pavers."

Crane Alley

Crane Alley

Crane Alley

We had a question in April about when Crane Alley in downtown Urbana would reopen. The restaurant/bar reopened for business on Wednesday and will be open Wednesdays through Sundays from 4 p.m. to midnight.

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