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The SIU softball team celebrates their 4-3 win over Northern Iowa in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference softball tournament on May 13, 2017 at Illinois State University's Marian Kneer Stadium in Normal. 

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Alexander County Housing Crisis
Thebes public housing residents are told they have to move

THEBES — In a special meeting Wednesday, federal housing officials told residents living in two public housing developments in Thebes that the complexes they call home are being put up for sale, and that residents will have to move. 

"What you're going to hear tonight is going to be life-changing somewhat. So I want to prepare you for what you're about to hear. But don't be overwhelmed, because that's why we're all here. And I'm not saying that lightly," Towanda Macon, a HUD administrator who has been overseeing the Alexander County Housing Authority for nearly two years, said at the top of the meeting.

Macon and other HUD officials then explained that the housing authority cannot afford to repair the complexes known as Mary Alice Meadows and Sunset Terrace. They laid out a plan to help the residents move with the assistance of relocation specialists, moving expenses and rent subsidies.  

Some of the residents said they expected this news given that the agency earlier announced a similar plan to relocate about 400 people from two public housing complexes in Cairo. While that meeting in Cairo last April was rife with emotion and tears, the roughly 15 or so residents who gathered in a small community room next to their apartment complex Wednesday night in Thebes seemingly took the news in stride.

At least a few had already changed into their evening lounge wear, and one woman explained she could only stay a minute because she had just put color in her hair when she heard about the meeting and rushed over to find out what was going on.

mollyjaneparker / MOLLY PARKER The Southern 

Jereon Brown (right), HUD's general deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, calls on a resident Wednesday night with a question about the federal agency's plan to help relocate public housing residents of two complexes in Thebes. Seated next to him is Jim Cunningham, the deputy regional administrator of HUD's Midwest office. 

Thebes, which similarly to Cairo is named after a city in Egypt, is a tiny, hard-luck village of about 360 people that sits on the Mississippi River. The river regularly rises too high here, and the economic prospects are low. About 85 people — roughly a fourth of the town — lives in one of the two public housing complexes in the village. Of them, about 40 are school-age children who attend Egyptian Community Unit School District 5, which has a total student population of about 475.  

Heather Toma, who has lived at Mary Alice Meadows for five years with her four children ages 13, 11, 10 and 4, said she's glad that HUD is extending the option to Thebes residents to move. "It's real exciting," she said. Toma said she believes a larger area and school will be better for her children. Toma said she doesn't know yet where she'll go, but she's sure of one thing. "I'm ready," she said, without hesitation. 

Others were less eager about the announcement. Michelle Baldwin said she likes living at the Thebes complex. At one time, she lived in public housing in Cairo, and said she prefers Thebes because it seems quieter, and she likes the small-town feel.  

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development spokesman Jerry Brown said before the meeting that the decision to sell the properties came after crunching numbers following a September cost assessment. That report showed that repairing just 10 vacant units — nine in Mary Alice Meadows and one in Sunset Terrace — would cost $648,733.11.

“If you look at that and you look at the capital funding for the housing authority, which is about $670,000, there is no way that we could actually do that and make it work financially,” Brown said, adding that repairing the units could “bankrupt” the Alexander County Housing Authority.

The document and assessment was prepared by the Farnsworth Group out of Champaign. Their assessment details a need to repair moisture damage in nine of the apartments because of plumbing leaks, window replacement in some units and second-story unit floor repairs — it describes many as sagging. Brown said the report only addressed livability repairs, and does not take into account any environmental assessments for unsafe building materials.

Brown said HUD is open to a variety of options — it could sell the units outright or enter a public/private partnership like it has for the Little Egypt Village development in Cairo. Brown said while HUD would like for the properties to be rehabbed for use to fulfill the area's need for affordable housing, he has to think about the ACHA’s bottom line, too.

“We’d like to have it into affordable property but this really comes down to some return,” he said, adding that money from the sale would also benefit those currently living in public housing with or without using the property for housing outright.

Brown said he wanted to be up-front with residents Wednesday.

“We also are going to be truthful with them. The odds of someone buying Thebes and repairing Thebes are low. But we are going to try everything,” he said.

In the meantime, Brown said HUD is going to begin working with residents who want to relocate either permanently or temporarily — some may want to return to Thebes if housing units are repaired in the future — by opening up the voucher program to the 31 households living in Thebes.

mollyjaneparker / MOLLY PARKER The Southern 

Mary Alice Meadows residents Dashawn Johnson, 12, Dalton Toma, 13, and Jazmin Porche, 15, hang out outside their apartment complex on Wednesday evening in Thebes. 

Jim Cunningham, the deputy regional administrator of HUD's Midwest Regional Office based in Chicago, said while there is still some back-end work to do, residents should be able to begin meeting with relocation specialists as early as Friday.

Laverne Williams has lived in Mary Alice Meadows for six years. She said she planned on going to Wednesday’s meeting, but wasn’t sure what to expect. Williams said she enjoys living in Thebes, but knows nothing is permanent.

“If you got to go, you got to go,” she said of the possibility HUD may deliver on Wednesday similar news as it did to Cairo’s ACHA residents last year, when 185 families were told they had to move from their homes for safety concerns.

In heated meeting, HUD tells Cairo public housing residents they have to move

CAIRO — A gathering of Cairo residents erupted in anger Monday night as federal housing officials informed them that close to 200 families residing in two sprawling World War II-era family housing developments of the Alexander County Housing Authority will have to move out of their units in the coming months, and that there is no immediate plan to provide new government-assisted housing in Cairo to replace the developments they intend to demolish.

Williams said she believed that the housing units could be salvaged if some work was put into them. But, Williams said they don’t seem to be doing that, pointing to cracking flooring and crumbling ceilings. She even said that her interior door didn’t lock and that no one had come out to fix it since she complained of it two months ago — she spoke on Wednesday through a locked storm door.

Lawrence Lewis also likes living in Mary Alice Meadows. He said that it’s quiet and suits him more than living in a busy place like Cairo would. He was previously unaware of the meeting, but said Wednesday afternoon he planned on going — he was later seen walking his neighborhood looking for a copy of the flyer put in residents' doors announcing the event.

Lewis said he would prefer not to move, but would if he had no other choice.

“If they putting us out (I will),” Lewis said.

Speaking before the meeting, Brown said he has been through meetings like Wednesday's a number of times, and he said they are never comfortable.

“It’s never a good meeting when you are telling folks that they need to consider moving,” he said, adding that he thinks the residents will likely take HUD’s announcement as “bad news.”

Still, Brown said he would like to think that people may see this as an opportunity to improve their living situations. HUD's vouchers subsidize rent paid to private landlords. Additionally, HUD is paying relocation costs for tenants who are relocating. Brown said there is the possibility of better work opportunities for adults and more educational possibilities for children.

“It’s a bunch of tough choices,” Brown said of decisions HUD teams have had to make.

“None of them may be the best choice for that individual but overall it's the best choice that we could make at this time,” Brown said.

Molly Parker contributed to this report.


illinois Legislature
Bill would limit terms of Illinois legislative leaders, including speaker of the House

SPRINGFIELD — A bill has been proposed at the Illinois General Assembly that would put term limits on four legislative positions.

The State Journal-Register reports that Republican Rep. Thomas M. Bennett of Gibson City has proposed the bill. It would limit the House speaker, Senate president and the minority leader in each chamber to 10 consecutive years in their roles.

Bennett submitted a similar bill in March, but it never left the committee. But last year, the chamber approved a resolution that limits the tenure of the Senate president and the minority leader to 10 years.

Democratic Sen. Julie A. Morrison of Deerfield sponsored that bill. She supports expanding the rule outside of the Senate, but says the change would be more effective as a constitutional amendment.


Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, enter Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's office at the Illinois State Capitol on June 28, 2016, in Springfield.

Senate celebrates budget deal — but shutdown still possible

WASHINGTON — Senate leaders brokered a long-sought budget agreement Wednesday that would shower the Pentagon and domestic programs with an extra $300 billion over the next two years. But both Democratic liberals and GOP tea party forces swung against the plan, raising questions about its chances just a day before the latest government shutdown deadline.

The measure was a win for Republican allies of the Pentagon and for Democrats seeking more for infrastructure projects and combatting opioid abuse. But it represented a bitter defeat for many liberal Democrats who sought to use the party's leverage on the budget to resolve the plight of immigrant "Dreamers" who face deportation after being brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The deal does not address immigration.

Beyond the $300 billion figure, the agreement adds almost $90 billion in overdue disaster aid for hurricane-slammed Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Senate leaders hope to approve the measure today and send it to the House for a confirming vote before the government begins to shut down at midnight today. But hurdles remain to avert the second shutdown in a month.

While Senate Democrats celebrated the moment of rare bipartisanship — Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called it a "genuine breakthrough" — progressives and activists blasted them for leaving immigrants in legislative limbo. Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, herself a key architect of the budget plan, announced her opposition Wednesday morning and mounted a remarkable daylong speech on the House floor, trying to force GOP leaders in the House to promise a later vote on legislation to protect the younger immigrants.

"Let Congress work its will," Pelosi said, before holding the floor for more than eight hours without a break. "What are you afraid of?"

The White House backed the deal — despite President Donald Trump's outburst a day earlier that he'd welcome a government shutdown if Democrats didn't accept his immigration-limiting proposals.

Trump himself tweeted that the agreement "is so important for our great Military," and he urged both Republicans and Democrats to support it.

But the plan faced criticism from deficit hawks in his own party.

Some tea party Republicans shredded the measure as a budget-buster. Combined with the party's December tax cut bill, the burst in military and other spending would put the GOP-controlled government on track for the first $1 trillion-plus deficits since President Barack Obama's first term. That's when Congress passed massive stimulus legislation to try to stabilize a down-spiraling economy.

"It's too much," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., a fiscal hawk.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., however, backed the agreement and was hoping to cobble together a coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans to push it through.

Despite the 77-year-old Pelosi's public talkathon, she was not pressuring the party's rank-and-file to oppose the measure, Democrats said. The deal contains far more money demanded by Democrats than had seemed possible only weeks ago, including $90 billion in disaster aid for Florida and Texas. Some other veteran Democrats — some of whom said holding the budget deal hostage to action on Dreamer immigrants had already proven to be a failed strategy — appeared more likely to support the agreement than junior progressives elected in recent years.

The budget agreement would give both the Pentagon and domestic agencies relief from a budget freeze that lawmakers say threatens military readiness and training as well as domestic priorities such as combating opioid abuse and repairing the troubled health care system for veterans.

The core of the agreement would shatter tight "caps" on defense and domestic programs funded by Congress each year. They are a hangover from a failed 2011 budget agreement and have led to military readiness problems and caused hardship at domestic agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the IRS.

The agreement would give the Pentagon an $80 billion increase for the current budget year for core defense programs, a 14 percent increase over current limits and $26 billion more than Trump's budget request. Nondefense programs would receive about $60 billion over current levels. Those figures would be slightly increased for the 2019 budget year beginning Oct. 1.

"For the first time in years, our armed forces will have more of the resources they need to keep America safe," said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "It will help us serve the veterans who have bravely served us. And it will ensure funding for important efforts such as disaster relief, infrastructure and building on our work to fight opioid abuse and drug addiction."

The $90 billion in disaster aid would bring the total appropriated in the wake of last year's hurricane season to almost $140 billion.

The agreement would increase the government's borrowing cap to prevent a first-ever default on U.S. obligations that looms in just a few weeks. The debt limit would be suspended through March of 2019.

The House on Tuesday passed legislation to keep the government running through March 23, marrying the stopgap spending measure with a $659 billion Pentagon spending plan, but the Senate plan would rewrite that measure.

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Saline County
Audit of Saline County Clerk's Office shows problems with financial impact greater than $1 million

HARRISBURG — An audit report looking into the Saline County Clerk and Recorder's Office alleges dysfunction in the office, noncompliance with laws and mandates and "concerning and suspicious activity."

The Saline County Board released the findings and recommendations of the forensic audit of County Clerk Kim Buchanan's office, performed by Marsh Minick P.C. of Portland, Oregon.

View the full forensic audit of Saline County Clerk's Office

The audit states: “The forensic audit of Saline County Clerk and Recorder’s Office concluded on Jan. 11, 2018, with the following findings: Controls are dysfunctional and mitigate risks to a limited extent; apparent willful non-compliance with laws and mandates; and direct evidence of concerning and suspicious activity."

The audit calculates the financial impact to the county is approximately $1,084,301.30 from potential mismanagement, waste and abuse, based on the auditors’ assessment of evidence. That amount includes: $22,064.13 of expenditures for new employees in the clerk’s office hired after the county board instituted a hiring freeze; $26,113 above the budgeted amount for the office (as of October 2017); $400,000 borrowed from the Social Security levy for IMRF levy from 2013 to 2014; $597,451 paid from IMRF Levy for Egyptian Health Department Levy during the examination period; $1,480 in a duplicated payment to a contractor who is a relative of Buchanan; as well overpayment of insurance premiums and document storage charges; unrecovered bounced check fees, wrong fees charged; and other items.

The audit report gives six recommendations: Implement an ethics committee and advisor; a discussion with the state’s attorney regarding available legal options; improve the monthly financial report spreadsheet (ordinance 131) to align more closely with fees collected by county clerk and recorder’s office; address previous audit findings; disclose forensic report to regular auditors; and provide clerk and recorder with written instructions for handling insurance changes and offices with a comprehensive benefits book that is retained for employees.

Saline County Commissioner Joe Jackson, who chairs both the budget committee and audit committee, said his impression is that the county clerk, according to the audit, has made a lot of mistakes — some financial, some law-breaking.

“For instance, not keeping the election office open eight hours when they are open and not complying with judge’s order 131 appear to be a willful breaking of the law,” Jackson said.

Jackson said he does not know if there is any criminal wrongdoing highlighted in the report, adding that has yet to be determined. He said he does feel there is a lot of dysfunction stemming from Buchanan being in office.

“We are still in the process of determining how to move forward from this. State’s Attorney Jayson Clark is our legal adviser, and we have placed this in his hands on how to move forward,” Jackson said.

Some of Jackson’s concerns include Buchanan overcharging for mileage during last year’s municipal elections and not providing documentation to go with the mileage; hiring of family members without bidding the contracts; and borrowing from Social Security to pay pensions without County Board approval.

Jackson said the dysfunction continued into the budgeting process for the current fiscal year. The county clerk turned in her budget levies the night the budget was put on display for the public. Then she objected because the amounts differed. Levies were requested in September and the budget was displayed in January.

“Budgets should have been presented in November for passing at the November regular meeting, but we were waiting on insurance quotes, which put us way behind,” Jackson said.

Buchanan, on the other hand, disputes the findings of the report, saying auditors did not have complete information.

“Basically, they are proposed findings. It was not complete and they left out a lot of information,” Buchanan said.

On the issue of borrowing from Social Security to pay pensions, Buchanan said the board was informed of the transfer of funds. She believes she has full authority to make those transactions.

The audit report finds the County Clerk and Recorder’s Office lacks a sufficient process to ensure compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act mandate. Some of the FOIA requests in the audit deal with the issue of undocumented mileage paid to Buchanan.

“I answered FOIA. A board member and the chairman refused to pick it up,” Buchanan said.

She is adamant that she has done nothing wrong, adding that she has sought the opinions of friends who are attorneys, retired judges and other county clerks who have agreed with her.

Buchanan is looking into misappropriations by the county board over past several years.

“We have a rogue board. They are the ones operating outside their authority,” Buchanan said.