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Maurice Webb Trail
Work begins to restore prairie on western Carbondale Green Earth preserve

CARBONDALE — Green Earth Director Stephanie Eichholz was in high spirits Wednesday morning as work began to re-establish the prairie near the Maurice Webb Trail in the Chautauqua Bottoms Nature Preserve.

Long Forestry, a local forestry consultation group, had a chance to play with its new toy — a forestry mulcher. It’s a land clearing method that uses a single machine to cut, grind, and clear vegetation. It uses a rotary drum equipped with steel chipper tools to shred vegetation.

Bracing themselves from the frigid temperatures in the low teens, consultants Chris and Mike Long warmed up the machine and went to work. Soon after, large and small trees throughout the prairie began to splinter into wood chips.

Green Earth will come in behind the work and do some cleanup, but Mike Long said the vegetation left from the mulch gives the ground cover and is, overall, beneficial for the prairie.

Eichholz said a little more than two and a half acres need to be mulched, admitting that's more of an eye test than an official measurement. Long said most of the work — if not all of it — could be done Wednesday.

Over time, Eichholz said, there has been a natural succession that has filled in the prairie with trees. She said if constant maintenance is performed on the land, the seeds from existing trees are spread across the land, causing additional growth.

In 2008, Eichholz said Green Earth switched from mowing the prairie to burning, which she says is a more natural maintenance system. She said the organization knew it would have to burn every two years, but it doesn’t have the resources to conduct its own burn. Green Earth had been relying on the Saluki Fire Dawgs, an SIU student group specializing in ecological research and maintenance, to donate its time as it did in 2008 and 2011, but it hasn’t been able to since.

Now, Eichholz said Green Earth has missed its “burn date,” meaning it is now too wet to conduct a proper burn.

“It has really started to fill in,” she said. “There are trees that are too large to be affected by fire. And hand clearing would be too labor-intensive.”

Chris Long said he has used Green Earth trails several times and called it a wonderful asset for Carbondale. The consultant group did the work at no charge. He said it's something he took pleasure in doing.

“I love it out here,” he said.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Chris Long of Long Forestry Consultation uses a forestry mulcher to clear trees and vegetation from a section of the Chautauqua Bottoms Nature Preserve on Wednesday morning in Carbondale. The trees are being cleared to help restore the prairie along the Maurice Webb Trail at the preserve.

Other projects 

In 2017, Green Earth was awarded a $102,000 grant under the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s Recreational Trails Program to upgrade one of the trails at the site to ADA-friendly standards.

In addition, the funds will allow the nonprofit to make improvements to trail surfaces, install a new pedestrian bridge and expand the parking lot, which is located on Chautauqua Street on the west side of Carbondale.

The David Kenney Trail, located on the west side of Little Crab Orchard Creek, will be upgraded to meet the U.S. Forest Service guidelines for ADA-friendly standards. The trail will be widened to 5 feet to accommodate wheelchairs, and it will have a hard-packed, smooth surface with ramped elevation changes.

“Carbondale is known as a very ADA-friendly town … so we decided it would be wonderful to become a part of that and really allow access to people to come out and enjoy nature,” Eichholz said in September.

The project will also connect the westernmost David Kenney Trail to the Maurice Webb Trail and Woodland Spur Trail with a pedestrian bridge over Little Crab Orchard Creek. The nature preserve’s sole parking lot is located by the Maurice Webb Trail, and the trailhead for the David Kenney Trail can only be accessed by walking along Chautauqua Street, where cars go by at high speeds.

Green Earth also plans to improve trail surfaces, as the area frequently becomes waterlogged. The IDNR grant will fund 80 percent of the Chautauqua Bottoms project. Green Earth had to raise the remaining 20 percent, or $25,500.

Eichholz said she is hopeful work can begin on the trails sometime in the spring or summer.

Illinois Gubernatorial Race
Rauner, Pritzker spend $28M in last 3 months

SPRINGFIELD — The race for Illinois governor cost more than $28 million just in the last three months of 2017 for the Nov. 2018 election.

Campaign finance disclosures filed this week show $9 of every $10 was spent by just two candidates — Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the leading Democratic challenger, Chicago businessman J.B. Pritzker.

That's nearly as much as the $30 million spent in the first nine months of 2017 in a race that could easily surpass the $112 million spent in the Prairie State four years ago and could approach the national record.

Rauner, whose first term has been marked by a record-long budget stalemate with the Democratic-controlled Legislature that ended last summer, drew right-wing ire last fall when he signed a law providing state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions.

Rauner reported raising $2.9 million in the last quarter of 2017. His campaign spent $12.8 million and had a whopping $55.6 million in the bank.

Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt hotel franchise and among the world's wealthiest people, reported raising $21 million and spending $13.3 million, with nearly $8 million on hand.

The 2014 race in which Rauner beat incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn cost $112 million. The national record was set in the 2010 California contest, in which the price tag for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown to reclaim the post over businesswoman Meg Whitman was $280 million.

Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Wheaton Republican who didn't join the gubernatorial race until Nov. 15, reported raising $434,000, spending $39,000 and with cash to start, had $662,000 in the bank.

Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat whose campaign has decried big-money self-funders such as Pritzker, raised $1.1 million and ended 2017 with $3.1 million. Another wealthy businessman, Chris Kennedy, raised $1 million and had $737,000 on hand.

Educator Bob Daiber of Marine, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman of Calumet City, and physician Robert Marshall of Burr Ridge are also seeking the Democratic nomination.

On a smaller scale, the race for attorney general to fill the seat being vacated by Democrat Lisa Madigan is heating up.

Eight candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for attorney general, including former Gov. Quinn, and they're putting up money to get it. Each of the Democrats, individually, has more on hand than the combined total for the GOP candidates, Erika Harold and Gary Grasso.

Sen. Kwame Raoul of Chicago leads the pack, raising $782,000, spending $109,000 and finishing the quarter with just under $1.1 million. Highwood Democratic Rep. Scott Drury collected $506,000 and finished with $732,000.

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering drew $631,000 and had $574,000 on hand; assistant U.S. Attorney Sharon Fairley took in $495,000 and had $388,000 in the bank, and lawyer and educational administrator Jesse Ruiz raised $549,000 and closed the period with $355,000.

Quinn started the period with $232,000, but raised only $79,000 in the last three months, leaving $279,000 on hand. Lawyers Aaron Goldstein and Renato Mariotti are also running.

On the GOP side, Harold, a lawyer and former Miss America, had $162,000 on hand after raising $135,000. Grasso, a DuPage County Board member, filed disclosure papers for attorney general last week.

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Chester is owed $1.2 million in Menard utility bills; state also owes Pinckneyville, Du Quoin

CHESTER — On Jan. 4, the city of Chester sent its second hardship letter in four months to the Illinois Comptroller’s Office requesting payment for utility bills for the Menard Correctional Facility.

“This letter is to express the urgency to remedy the $1,231,818.48 owed to the City of Chester, Illinois, for utility services provided to the Menard Correctional Center and MSU (Medium Security Unit)," the letter from Chester Mayor Thomas Page and City Clerk Bethany Berner reads. "The state is more than one hundred and twenty (120) days behind in the payments to the City of Chester.”

Chester is in contract with the prison to provide water, sewer and gas utilities, and has had to pay those bills out of pocket as they wait for the state to pay its backlog of bills.

The letter indicates that the city has not received a sewer payment since February of last year, while the water and gas accounts are behind starting in June.

In the letter, Page and Berner write that the city has had to defer maintenance to the water facility, which the city still owes bond debt on. They write they are not able to set aside the bond payments — $54,000 each month — because the state is in arrears on payments to them.

“We have been putting Band-Aids on things instead of permanent fixes, and a lot of it relates to the money the state owes us,” Page said in interview Monday.

“The state owes money to everybody,” said Abdon Pallasch, Director of Communications for Comptroller Susana Mendoza’s Office, adding that Chester's situation was not unique.

The Comptroller's Office on Tuesday announced it was making $11.2 million in utility payments throughout the state. The announcement said with such a huge backlog of bills going back through the years-long budget impasse, it will be hard for Mendoza’s office to find its way through the state's debt.

“With an $9.2 billion backlog of bills, the Comptroller's Office will continue to be challenged on a month-to-month basis in addressing the ongoing core obligations of the state and in chipping away at old bills,” the release says.

Jamey Dunn, deputy director of communications for the comptroller's office, said this payment included $102,881.21 to Chester, which should have caught the city up through fiscal year 2017 where its general fund bills were concerned.

Dunn said some other utility bills from prisons are paid through the Working Capital Revolving Fund, which is controlled by the Department of Corrections itself and not the comptroller's office. She said they "cash manage" the fund and tell her office what bills to pay out of it.

When Page learned of the payment, he said it was good news, but by the time Chester receives the check, it would be a drop in the bucket of what the city needs to mitigate the damage of unpaid bills.

Page said in a few weeks the city will bill Menard for the month of January and he said it’s possible this $102,000 payment could just cover January, “if that."

Photos: A Look Inside Menard Correctional Center

As Pallasch said, Chester is not the only city waiting on payment for a prison's utilities. The state also owes Pinckneyville $896,159.52, city clerk Larry West said, for water, sewer and gas services the city provides to the Pinckneyville Correctional Center.

“It’s hurting like hell,” West said of the strain on the city’s finances. He said he is having to scrimp from everywhere he can while he waits on a check.

“You are looking at a third of your water/sewer customers not paying,” he said, providing context for the volume the prison makes up in their utility services. He said this balance is for roughly six to eight months of unpaid bills.

West said the last check the city received for the prison’s bills came in October. At the time, West said, the state owed $980,805 and sent a payment of $464,078, bringing their balance down to $516,727.

Du Quoin Mayor Guy Alongi said his city also partners with a correctional facility — they provide water and sewer services to the Impact Incarceration Program and have a backlog of two to three years of bills totaling around $8,074.14. Like Pinckneyville and Chester, Alongi said his city got a payment check in October.

“It’s just a standard way of doing business with the state of Illinois anymore,” Alongi said, adding that he knows eventually the city will get its money.

Page said there is no next step for his city as far as damage control. He said the state needs to pay. With temperatures dipping regularly below freezing, he said it’s not an option to cut the prison off. He knows firsthand how bad having utilities cut off can be for a prison — this happened to him as warden of Menard during the historic Mississippi River flood in 1993.

“It was just a nightmare the average person just wouldn’t understand,” he said of having to bring in port-a-potties for inmates when the river overtook the prison’s water facility.

“I know in my heart that turning off their utilities is not the right thing to do,” he said.

Page said other alternatives are hard to conceive of. He said furloughs or layoffs within the sewer and water plants aren’t easy to do because they have to run the facilities constantly to keep up with the demand of the prison — the letter says that the city renovated its water plant, increasing its size to keep up with demand from Menard.

There is a bright spot, though. Page and Berner said they met with a representative from the Comptroller’s Office and Page said he thinks they could see some relief soon.

“I really do have my hopes up high again,” he said of the meeting.

Berner said blame cannot be placed squarely on the state, though. In their talks with with the representative from the comptroller’s office, she was told that after the city sends a bill to the prison and it is approved there, it is then sent to another department within the DOC. It is here that another clog exists, she said.

Pallasch said that there is a delay in the state getting bills from the prison, which is making the wait times even longer.

Dunn said the Comptroller’s Office's records do not match the amounts the city indicates the state owes, which she said does not indicate error on the city’s part, but points to a breakdown in bills being delivered for payment.

A representative from IDOC could not be reached to clarify how bills make their way from a prison to the comptroller's office, nor to provide a list of what utility bills from municipalities are still waiting to be sent to the Comptroller's Office for payment.