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The Oasis drive-in movie theater is scheduled to open on Friday, Oct. 30 in the parking lot of the Marion mall.


Local
alert top story
State moving ahead with plans to renovate Rend Lake Resort and Conference Center
  • Updated

WHITTINGTON — The state is moving closer to selecting a contractor to oversee upgrades to the Rend Lake Resort and Conference Center and related amenities at the Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area that have fallen into disrepair and sat empty for years.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources committed to undertake restoration of the resort about a year ago after multiple attempts over several years to find a private operator fell through, in large part because the facilities are in such poor condition.

Last year, the state tried to entice a qualified concessionaire by offering up to $1.5 million in financial incentives to help with renovation costs. It also offered bidders several options, including taking over and renovating all facilities, or only some of them. The property consists of a hotel and conference/event center, cabins, boatels, pool, restaurant, gift shop and boat dock with fuel dispensing station.

“We had plenty of questions from potential vendors, but we didn’t receive any bids,” said Rachel Torbert, spokeswoman for IDNR. “That, coupled with the state’s desire to keep this project moving forward, is what led us to go on and take a look at moving this into a state-led renovation project working with the Capital Development Board.”

In July, the Illinois Capital Development Board, which oversees major state construction projects, advertised a request for architect/engineering consultants interested in redeveloping the property to its former glory.

Interviews originally scheduled for Sept. 30 were delayed until this past Monday, but the process is moving forward, Torbert said.

After the state completes renovations to the property, IDNR will again seek to find a qualified concessionaire to take over day-to-day operations.

The resort, once considered a crown jewel tourist attraction in Southern Illinois, drawing people from Chicago, the Metro East and across the region, has been without an operator since 2016.

That December, IDNR announced it had terminated the concessionaire’s lease and closed the facility. In its release at the time, the state agency said mold, peeling paint and other health-related issues had been identified at the resort and conference center. As well, the concessionaire, who had operated the resort since its opening in 1990, was behind on rent and real estate taxes to the tune of about $219,000, and also owed back payments for utilities and hotel operator’s taxes.

Several issues led to the decline of the property. The former concessionaire paid for construction of the hotel and conference center, but the parties could not reach agreement on ownership. Funding sources for repairs also dried up. Area lawmakers successfully earmarked $5 million for capital improvements in 2013, but then the money never materialized. For years, Illinois was without a capital budget. That changed in 2019 with passage of the Rebuild Illinois plan.

IDNR did not project a timeline for the project except to say that it is moving forward.


Photos: Garden of the Gods in winter

Photos: Garden of the Gods in winter

Govt-and-politics
editor's pick top story
Election 2020
Franklin County to choose 3 county board members, state's attorney, coroner
  • Updated

BENTON — Franklin County voters will have the opportunity Tuesday to choose several county positions, including state’s attorney, coroner and three county board seats.

Provided 

Butler

Phillip Butler, a Democrat, is running to retain his seat as the county’s state's attorney, or lead prosecutor. He was appointed to the position Aug. 30, 2019, after then-state’s attorney Evan Owens became a judge. Butler said he has been practicing law since 2008 and has worked in Franklin County since 2010. In 2013, he was named first assistant in the office.

“I feel I have the experience Franklin County needs,” he said, pointing to the five first-degree murder cases he has tried, as well as his experience working with the drug task force in Franklin County.

“I love serving the people of Franklin County,” he said.

Provided 

Dinn

His challenger, Abby Dinn, a Republican, has interned in both the Franklin and Jackson County state’s attorney's offices, as well as for the U.S. Attorney's Office. She said law enforcement is in her blood. She is married to a former Drug Enforcement Agency agent and her brother-in-law Tom Dinn previously served as Franklin County’s state’s attorney.

Dinn said she has seen how her home county has changed for the worse and she blames the influx of meth. She hopes to tackle this problem by going after dealers.

“My main focus is going to be on meth and other drug crimes,” Dinn said. She hopes by doing this it will decrease the overall crime in the county.

“I want this county to be a place where I can leave my door unlocked during the day,” Dinn said.

Leffler

Funeral Director Marty Leffler, a Democrat, is seeking to keep his job as the county’s coroner. He won his first election to the office in 2008 and has served ever since.

Leffler said he plans to continue to run his office the way he always has — with respect. He said his campaign’s slogan has been “Dignity in life. Dignity in death.”

“You've just got to be caring and kind,” he said of the job of coroner. He also said being a good communicator is key, as coroners spend a lot of time sitting before judges and attorneys for court hearings. Both are qualities he said he has.

Ultimately, Leffler summed his pitch to voters by saying that he is “the better qualified candidate that’s going to be caring and there for you.”

Provided 

Odle

Brandon Odle, a Republican, is running against Leffler. Odle, a captain at the West City Fire Department, said he likes Leffler and has worked with him in his capacity as a firefighter. But he said it might be time for a shake-up in the office.

“I think it’s time for a change in the way stuff’s being ran,” he said. “We’re wanting to make the county a better place.”

3 Franklin County Board seats contested

PROVIDED 

Gulley

County Board District 1 incumbent Democrat John Gulley made his pitch to voters by saying he is an experienced county government leader and wants to continue to help the county regain its footing financially.

Gulley stepped down as county treasurer in 2017, and in 2018 was appointed to finish Tom Vaughn’s term on the county board. He said of the things he is proud of, starting the process of building a new courthouse ranked at the top.

“I think that’s an accomplishment to be proud of,” Gulley said. He also said he was proud that the bids coming in for the project are under budget.

Isaac Smith / Provided 

Kash

Republican challenger Mark Kash is a farmer who lives outside of Sesser. He attended Rend Lake College and Southern Illinois University Carbondale, then decided to pursue farming full time. He described himself as decidedly not a politician.

“I would be more in touch with the thoughts of other people in this rural community,” he said.

He said one issue he'd like to tackle is the county's financial situation. 

“I’d like to maybe keep a handle on the spending a little bit, where we don’t spend more money than we take in,” Kash said. He also wants to see improvements to roads and bridges in the county.

Provided 

Price

In District 2, incumbent Democrat Alan Price also hopes to continue to help the struggling county with its finances.

“I feel like I could be a big help in getting the budget balanced,” he said. Price said it’ll be a tough road, though. He said cuts need to come from somewhere, but the only place he could see was payroll.

“Only way we can cut in the future is probably going to be with payroll until we can get income in this county,” he said, adding that at the moment a coal mine is one of the primary sources of income for the county.

Provided 

Wilson

Republican Brad Wilson will be challenging Price on the ticket. He, like others, said a shake-up is needed.

“It’s not necessarily Alan Price. I just believe it’s time for a change. It’s time for maybe a different point of view on the county board,” he said.

He believes in fiscal conservancy and wants to find ways to generate more revenue.

“You can’t tax your way out of debt,” Wilson said.

He also said he has experience managing construction projects while serving on other boards. He said he would be a good person to help manage the construction of the new county courthouse.

Matt Donkin

Democrat Matt Donkin was appointed in November last year to fill Steve Leek’s vacant board seat representing District 3 on the county board. He said his reason for seeking re-election comes down to his belief in public service.

“I believe the role of a county board member is to represent our communities with integrity in providing an efficient, responsible, service-oriented, financially responsible county government to move us towards a better future,” Donkin wrote in an email to The Southern.

He said with the ideal location between two major interstates and a solid education system — which he worked for both as a regional superintendent of schools and as a Frankfort School District superintendent — the county is set up for success.

“Franklin County is positioned for progress,” he wrote. “I pledge to continue to work towards that goal.”

Provided 

Gossett

Republican John Gossett is challenging Donkin for District 3’s board seat and is running a values-based campaign, he said. He is pro-God, pro-gun and pro-coal, he said.

“I believe I carry the values of my people here,” he said of his reasons for running.

Gossett said he would stand up against any state or federal regulations he thought infringed on the rights of Franklin County residents. For example, he said he wanted to pass a resolution that would say the county would not enforce Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 mitigation measures. He recognized that this might not mean much, but he said he would at least be this voice on the board.

As far as tangible changes wants to see in the county, Gossett said he would like to see money invested into the struggling juvenile detention center to allow for the housing of federal inmates. This would generate revenue for the county, he said.

Election Day is Nov. 3. Early voting is underway now.


State-and-regional
topical alert
North suburban counties join mitigation list as Pritzker, Illinois State Police talk enforcement
  • Updated

SPRINGFIELD — North suburban Lake and McHenry counties will be the eighth region of the state’s COVID-19 plan facing increased economic restrictions as COVID-19 surges in the state and Republican opposition mounts to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s mitigation plan.

“Region 9 (which includes the two counties) is today seeing an 8.4% positivity average, up from 4.8% this time last month and up from 3.1% in late June,” Pritzker said Wednesday at his daily COVID-19 briefing in Chicago. “Average COVID-related hospital admissions today are five times as high as they were in mid-June, and three times as high as in mid-September. In other words, things are bad in Region 9 and getting worse.”

Beginning Saturday, increased mitigation measures will include the closure of bars and restaurants to indoor service and limits on the size of social gatherings both indoor and outdoor to the lesser of 25 people or 25% of capacity, among other restrictions.

The announcement came as the state reported another 51 virus-related deaths, including one youth, three people in their 50s, five in their 60s, 10 in their 70s, 23 in their 80s, and nine 90 or older.

The 6,110 cases reported Wednesday marked the second-highest one-day total, while the 70,752 test results reported over the previous 24 hours made for an 8.6% one-day positivity rate, the highest since June 2. The statewide seven-day rolling average case positivity rate increased to 6.7%, the highest since May 30.

The virus has now claimed 9,619 lives among 389,095 confirmed cases. More than 7.4 million tests have been conducted since the pandemic began.

In the midst of a second major wave of COVID-19, Pritzker said the state is far more prepared than it was in March and April, as it now has stockpiles of personal protective equipment and far greater testing capacity.

“Are we better prepared? We sure are,” Pritzker said. “That doesn't mean that we can stop the virus. It means that with the virus present among us, we at least can diagnose people, we can make sure that people have PPE and especially masks.”

Still, Pritzker called the ongoing increase in virus spread a “tremendous wave” that’s affecting the whole nation. He was joined by Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly, and both men noted that State Police would be enforcing COVID-19 mitigation measures in the regions subjected to them.

Kelly said ISP has received referrals and complaints and worked with local health departments, local law enforcement, and the Illinois Department of Public Health in 37 different counties. The department has issued misdemeanor citations in five counties so far.

The process for handling violations is laid out by emergency rules approved by a legislative committee, which requires voluntary compliance be sought before citations can be issued or licenses revoked.

According to Kelly, citations come when “you have some business owners, you got waitresses, waiters, cook staff, they're just outright refusing to wear masks and, you know, right now that's just kind of gross.”

Pritzker said enforcement is a local responsibility, but State Police will be called in when locals fall short.

“Local government leaders are in fact ultimately responsible,” he said. “The laws that are on the books, the regulations that are on the books for the state of Illinois, are the responsibility — at least enforcement for them — are the responsibility of local leaders, local law enforcement.”

He said the state uses the State Police when needed, and they have been “very, very effective” in areas where there are fewer sheriff's deputies or police available for enforcement.

“And there are some areas where local leaders are not doing what they need to do, and that's where state police would come in handy,” Pritzker said.

State Rep. Brad Stephens, a Republican who is also the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, indicated local resources are not being used for enforcement in his village.

“I think at this point, our health department is not staffed to the level of going around and shutting all these businesses down,” he said in a virtual news conference with fellow House Republicans Wednesday morning. “I think this is an order from the governor and that's something that the governor is going to have to enforce. You know, we're gonna work with our folks as much as we can, to erect tents and do the kind of things that they suggest. But we're hoping that the governor revisits this and that they're allowed to open back up at some point really soon here.”

Stephens and other Republicans called for greater involvement of the General Assembly in setting mitigation measures going forward, but Pritzker has not indicated he is willing to deviate from the Restore Illinois plan that has triggered mitigations in eight of the state’s 11 regions.

Of the remaining three regions that have not triggered mitigations, Region 3, which includes Springfield and several surrounding counties, is one day away from triggering them as of Wednesday after two days above an 8% positivity rate. Region 6 in east-central Illinois saw its rate hit 8.1%, meaning if it holds that level for two days it would also see increased mitigations.

Region 2, including Peoria and several surrounding counties, increased to 7.7%.

Hospitalizations all once again hit second-wave highs, with 2,861 people reported hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening, including 600 in intensive care unit beds and 243 on ventilators.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick top story
Carbondale mayor endorses graduated tax amendment, saying state can't cut its way out of budget problems
  • Updated

CARBONDALE — Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry on Wednesday asked Southern Illinois residents to join him in supporting an amendment to the Illinois constitution allowing the state to shift from a flat to a graduated-rate state income tax.

Under a graduated-rate tax, higher income earners would chip into the state coffers at a higher tax rate than those in lower income brackets.

“I urge everyone to vote for the ‘fair tax.’ It is fair. I voted for it yesterday and I have encouraged my friends to vote for it,” said Henry, joined by a handful of other amendment supporters at a news conference held outside Carbondale City Hall.

The vast majority of people in Southern Illinois would see a tax decrease or no change under the proposed tax structure, Henry said. Currently, all Illinoisans’ individual incomes are taxed at a flat rate of 4.95%. Approval of the amendment would usher in a new rate structure beginning January 2021, raising the tax rate for those who make more than $250,000 annually.

State officials estimate the change would bring in an additional $1.4 billion in the second half of this fiscal year, and about $3.4 billion annually in subsequent fiscal years.

“The state of Illinois has had budget problems for decades,” Henry said. “We cannot cut our way out of this. We have to have more revenues, and we need to improve our infrastructure. We need to get more adequate funding for our schools and universities, our infrastructure — so we have clean water, have the best sewer treatment plants going — and we need to employ our local people here in Illinois.”

Opponents of the amendment say it would give politicians in Springfield too much power, doesn’t provide for assurances the money will go to critical programs, and allows lawmakers to delay making needed structural changes for a financially sound state government.

“The truth is, the proposed rates are just a drop in the bucket in comparison to the amount of money the Legislature would need to fix their fiscal mismanagement,” The Coalition to Stop the Proposed Tax hike Amendment says on its website.

“Unless the Legislature is forced to control spending and make needed reforms, they will have to continue raising taxes on everyone in Illinois, including middle-class families.” The coalition also argues this is the worst possible time to change the tax rates, with employers large and small already struggling amid the pandemic.

Under the proposal, the corporate flat-tax rate would increase from 7% to 7.99%. Though, the corporate tax is not applicable to most small businesses.

Wednesday’s press conference was organized by the Vote Yes for Fair Tax committee and was one of several events held around the state in the run-up to next Tuesday’s election.

Henry was joined at the press conference by Jane Cogie, chair of the Sierra Club Shawnee Group; Bonnie Cissell, proprietor of Lincoln Heritage Winery in Cobden; Jason Woolard, a representative of IBEW Local 702; Kate Fakhoury, with Illinois Partners for Human Service; and retired teacher Carla Womack, of Pomona.

Woolard said failure to pass the amendment would force lawmakers to “cut deeper, lower our expectations for what our state can do for us, or increase taxes on everyone with an oppressive flat tax that would continue to cripple our state and burden those who make less than $250,000 a year.”

Woolard said he also wanted to address misconceptions about the amendment that opponents are spreading, particularly as it pertains to retirees. “This fair tax does not change the fact that the pensions in Illinois are not taxed,” he said. “Pensions and the taxing of pensions are not on the ballot.”

The federal government and most states utilize a graduated-tax rate structure, and opponents point to the fact that those states also tax retirement income. Supporters of the amendment note that Illinois lawmakers already have the ability to pass a law taxing retirement income under the existing tax rate structure, and that option will remain whether the amendment on Tuesday’s ballot passes or fails.

Opponents also point to a statement that Democratic Treasurer Michael Frerichs made in June, stating that a progressive tax would “make clear you can have graduated rates when you are taxing retirement income, and, I think that’s something that’s worth discussion.” Frerichs later said he does not support taxing any retirement income, nor does Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose administration crafted the plan. 

Cissell, who runs Lincoln Heritage Winery, said she also believes that opponents have misstated the effect a graduated-rate income tax would have on small businesses like hers. Only 3% of Illinois residents will pay more under the tax structure that will go in effect if the amendment passes. That means 97% of Illinoisans will pay the same or less, including most small business owners, she said. Cissell said tax breaks for low- and middle-income families, even small ones, may also help circulate more money into the local economy, which will help small businesses. 


The Illinois graduated tax amendment explained

The Illinois graduated tax amendment explained