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Kankakee stands to lose Home Rule power in low census count

KANKAKEE — As U.S. Census figures trickle in and communities eagerly wait to see how their population base expanded — or declined — Kankakee could be looking at a very bleak fiscal picture if the number of reporting households does not rapidly increase.

A low census count in Kankakee would not only continue a decades-long trend of declining population, but more importantly, an under count of residents could plunge the city below the 25,000-population mark.

Most folks may ask what is the big deal if the city loses more than 2,537 residents from its 2010 U.S. Census count of 27,537?

It would mean plenty.

If that situation unfolds — and it likely could based on the fact that only 54.9 percent of census forms have been completed by city dwellers (compared to 67.9 percent statewide) — the city would likely lose its all-important Home Rule authority which allows the city to borrow money through bonding without a referendum as well as other governing functions.

One key example of lost Home Rule powers would have meant the city would not have been able to increase its sales tax rate by 2 percentage points as it did two years ago by a city council vote.

Instead, without Home Rule powers, the city would have been forced to take its revenue request to the voters for a tax referendum. The likelihood of residents approving a self-imposed tax increase would have most certainly been a difficult sell at best.

Kankakee’s leadership is likely faced with waging a door-to-door campaign to get as many people to complete the census as possible.

Such a campaign will be difficult and perhaps fruitless.

According to the U.S. Census population projection from July 1, 2019, the city’s population came in at 26,024 — a 1,513 drop of residents, or a 5.5 percent decline from 2010.

Here is what Illinois law states regarding Home Rule and decreased population:

“If a municipality which is a home rule unit under Section 6 of Article VII of the Constitution by reason of having a population of more than 25,000 suffers a loss of population so that its population determined as provided in Section 1-7-2 is 25,000 or less, such municipality shall continue to have the powers of a home rule unit until it elects by referendum not to be a home rule unit.”

The city would have two calendar years to hold a referendum vote to determine if Home Rule could remain or whether is would be eliminated, according to state law. It is likely that if the population drops, the Home Rule vote would likely happen in November 2022.

An Illinois Municipal Policy Journal article published in 2019 listed Kankakee as one of seven municipalities as being “on the bubble” with retaining Home Rule due to 2020 number.

The article, authored by DePaul University’s Nick Kachiroubas and Markus Beyer, projected Kankakee’s 2020 census numbers at 25,206 — a razor-thin margin to retain Home Rule.

The city is divided into several “Census Tracts,” which are smaller sections of the city. None of these smaller groups are doing well in terms of responses. Alderman Fred Tetter, D-7, which includes sizable portions of the city’s north and east sides, is not doing well. Tetter noted some of the tracts have response rates in the 30 percent range.

Those numbers, he said, simply will not do and he is aware the clock is ticking.

“We have to get these numbers up. I’m very concerned about losing Home Rule,” Tetter said. “We have to look at how things are being done [in terms of gaining responses] and what can be done. If we lose Home Rule, we could be in big trouble. These are things people need to understand.”

“We are going to have to put on a full-court press. I mean government and non-government and show the people why this is so important,” he said.

Alderman Mike O’Brien, D-2, who also is chairman of the council’s Budget Committee, said if getting the count increase requires council members to go door-to-door, he willing to take on that task.

“I do think with a concentrated effort, we can get that count much closer to 100 percent. We all need to work together. This is such a big deal. People have to whatever it takes to get these numbers up. It’s game time to turn this around,” he said. “We all recognize the importance of this.”

Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong noted after Monday’s Kankakee City Council meeting that Home Rule is essential to governing Kankakee.

“It gives us so much more flexibility to problem solve. It allows us to be creative, such as the 2-percent-point increase in the sales tax rate. I’m very concerned about getting an accurate count.”

Alderman Carl Brown, D-7, the most-senior of Kankakee council members, believes the population is here to maintain Home Rule, it’s just a matter of getting them to fill out the questionnaire.

“I don’t believe we will drop below 25,000. But this is a big concern about potentially losing that status. It seems like people here like to do things at the last minute,” he said.

Like O’Brien, Brown said if aldermen are called to canvas neighborhoods, then that is what they will do.

“Everyone should be concerned about this.”

Extra federal unemployment benefit ends, but job woes remain

The extra $600 in federal unemployment benefits ended for Illinois residents July 25, but the pandemic’s interference with people’s jobs is far from over, as unemployment numbers remain high.

The June 2020 unemployment rates in Illinois were up in all 14 metropolitan areas, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

In the Kankakee area, that rate is 12 percent, up from 4.4 percent in June 2019. Statewide, the rate is 14.6 percent, a record high for the month of June dating back to 1976. The unemployment rate identifies those who are out of work and seeking employment.

As part of CARES Act legislation, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) provided an additional $600 per week to individuals receiving unemployment benefits. The $600 amount equates to an employee earning $15 an hour for 40 hours.

Since the pandemic began, more than $2.5 billion has been paid out of the Illinois Unemployment Trust Fund in regular benefits.

That’s on top of $4.3 billion in FPUC benefits and $290 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits, both of which are two new fully federally funded programs.

Bonfield area resident John Benoit, whose last full day of work was March 13, was included in those who had FPUC benefits cut off at the end of the month.

“I got the full run of the assistance, which has been very nice,” Benoit said. “I did not have to worry about being able to pay my bills.”

Benoit, 36, is an accounts manager for Frankfort-based event planning company Plus One AV, which assists with audio and visual components for special events such as the Chicago Marathon and Kankakee’s Merchant Street Music Fest. With virtually all events canceled due to COVID-19 since March, Benoit found himself out of a job right away.

“We were one of the first ones hit, and we’ll be the last ones able to go back,” he said.

Benoit worked his way up over the past 10 years from setting up event equipment to a management position. At the start of the pandemic, he was reduced to part-time hours. Two weeks later, he was laid off.

“I saw it coming,” Benoit said. “It sucks. I like working. I like my job.”

Benoit filed for unemployment at the end of March, and he considers himself lucky that he submitted his information as soon as he did.

His unemployment benefits were approved within three weeks, but some of his coworkers didn’t get compensation for two to three months.

“It would have been rough [without the assistance],” Benoit said. “I probably would be late on a few bills.”

His employer set a possible return date for the beginning of August, but there was no work to return to. Most major events are still canceled well into the busiest event season of the year.

“I’m still hoping to be able to go back to work eventually, but there is nothing in my industry,” Benoit said.

Benoit said he has been able to save some of the extra unemployment benefits for emergencies, so he is not too worried that FPUC has ended. He continues to receive regular unemployment benefits.

Bourbonnais resident Logan DeYoung also found himself out of work in the early days of the pandemic. However, he was not so lucky in attaining unemployment benefits.

DeYoung, 24, works as a dishwasher in an Olivet Nazarene University dining hall.

When the university sent students home in March to complete the spring semester online, that meant dining halls closed as well.

“Mentally, I’ve just been trying to keep it together,” he said. “Work was the only thing I did outside of the home.”

He has a medical condition that makes him more vulnerable to COVID-19 and said he wouldn’t have felt comfortable working even if he could have found another job.

DeYoung filed for unemployment shortly after being let go and received one $90 check. Unfortunately, he didn’t realize he would need to re-certify his unemployment status every week, and he never received any further benefits.

Over about a two-month period he said he made several calls to the Illinois Department of Employment Security, only to hear the same voice recording explaining that the lines were busy.

One day when he called, the recording had changed and he received instructions on where to submit his information. Three weeks later, he received a reply.

It wasn’t good news.

“They said I wasn’t entitled to the money because I didn’t certify,” he said. “I put in so much effort, but because I didn’t follow directions, once I was out of the system, that was it.”

Fortunately, DeYoung has financial support from his parents, whom he lives with. His father, a UPS driver, has maintained steady employment during the pandemic.

With ONU preparing to welcome students back to campus in the fall, DeYoung expects to return to work soon.

“It’s frustrating this happened, but there’s not much more I could’ve done afterward,” he said.

IDES said in a statement that the department has set up a virtual call center that has grown to more than 560, more than doubling its capacity since the beginning of this pandemic.

That has allowed the department to handle more than 50,000 additional unemployment claims and questions that have come through the call center between May 5 and June 4, according to the statement.

An IDES spokesperson encouraged claimants to use the department’s website — which had its capacity increased early during the pandemic — to file claims and leave the phone lines for those who are otherwise unable to file a claim online.

“While we understand that claimants may be continuing to experience unique issues with their claims that require claims rep intervention, our upgrades have allowed us to process more than 1.4 million claims since March 1 and pay out more than $7 billion in benefits,” the spokesperson said in a statement in response to questions of how a claimant can best get through to the department. “We understand that there are many cases where a claimant needs to speak to a representative to resolve an issue or make a change, which is why we are continuing to work to increase capacity.”

Jerry Nowicki with Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report.

Kankakee police investigating fatal shooting

KANKAKEE — Kankakee police and the Kankakee County Coroner’s Office are investigating the shooting death of a 30-year-old man that occurred Thursday night.

A preliminary police report indicated Roger E. Jackson, of Kankakee, was shot multiple times, Coroner Bob Gessner said. Jackson was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy is scheduled for today, Gessner said.

Police said they responded at 10:30 p.m. to a call in the 300 block of South Rosewood Avenue where they found Jackson on the front porch of a house. He was dead upon officers’ arrival. Kankakee Police Chief Frank Kosman said Friday that preliminary investigation indicates Jackson was the intended target and was not struck by random gunfire.

His body was found near a chair, but it’s unclear at this time if he was standing or sitting at the time of the shooting.

Anyone with information is asked to contact KPD at 815-933-3321.

This is the second homicide in Kankakee County this year.

Pritzker to file new emergency rules that carry charges, fines

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his administration would be filing a new emergency rule Friday allowing health authorities to levy fines on establishments that flout masking and capacity guidelines.

The rules “would provide multiple opportunities for compliance” regarding face mask requirements and capacity limits, including attempts to “educate” and warn the establishment before an order is issued for some patrons to leave the premises. If the establishment is still not in compliance after those steps are taken, health officials can levy a Class A misdemeanor charge and a fine ranging from $75 to $2,500.

Pritzker said all establishments in Illinois are beholden to capacity limits of 50 people or 50 percent of a building’s maximum occupancy, and schools must limit the number of people in one space to 50 or less.

Both the Illinois Department of Public Health and local authorities will have power under the rule to “seek cooperation with businesses in COVID-19 related investigations,” according to the governor.

The fines would apply to establishments — not individuals — and the governor’s office noted the rules focus on businesses, schools and child care establishments.

“These rules are a commonsense way to enforce mask requirements without jumping immediately to the extremely tough consequences that exist on the books today,” Pritzker said at a news conference announcing the rules in Chicago. “They’ll give local authorities a step-by-step guide on how to enforce masks and distancing, and an opportunity to help businesses act in good faith.”

He said the existing law allows for license revocations, which would be more costly than the fines allowed in the new emergency rules.

Because they are emergency rules, they can only be in place for up to 150 days. The General Assembly’s bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, or JCAR, has the authority to review emergency rules, and would have to approve the rules if they are to be adopted long-term.

Pritzker’s push for the new rules follows a similar attempt which failed before JCAR in May as the committee, after hourslong negotiations behind the scenes, appeared uninterested in imposing a fine structure for businesses that were already hurting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At that time, a lead Democrat from the committee said he planned to bring the proposed rule changes before the full General Assembly after the Pritzker administration withdrew the emergency rules amid the opposition. General Assembly action would have bypassed JCAR, enshrining the rules into law, but such a bill never came up for a vote in the abbreviated May session.

Pritzker suggested it will be different this time around, as the new version of the rule allows for education and warnings before the fine.

“What’s different about this rule is it focuses on warnings, and then a fine,” Pritzker said. “What’s available to us in the (existing) law is only essentially a misdemeanor immediately as a solution to the problem. And that was something that JCAR did not want us to move forward with, and so we made alterations.”

Pritzker made the announcement with various teachers’ union representatives, a restaurant trade group president and elected officials at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.

Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said the measure is necessary so that the state does not enter another stay-at-home order or mandate other closures in the hospitality industry.

“If we want to stay on a steady path and keep our progress with reopening, it’s up to every individual to work collectively towards a common goal,” Toia said. “It’s simple. If you choose not to adhere to public safety guidelines or house rules at businesses, your favorite restaurants, shops, bars, salons, hardware stores and more will pay the price.”

The governor also said the order will be important to enforcing mask requirements at schools.

“There are parents that are encouraging school boards in some areas of the state to open without masks. That is against the rules in the state of Illinois, and we now are giving the authority to county public health boards and county public health administrators to work with schools on improving those mitigations that they should have in place,” he said.

Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association teachers’ union, said in order for in-person learning to work, each district must develop a “practical, enforceable safety plan” following public health guidance.

“I ask you, please, wear face coverings. Maintain social distancing. Do the right thing for your family, for your neighbors, for your community, and most of all, for the over 2 million students in the state of Illinois,” she said.

A trade group representing the state’s retailers released a statement later Friday opposing the rule, noting that the virus is increasingly spreading at private parties.

“This proposed rule lacks common sense and is a slap in the face to the thousands of retailers who have sacrificed so much during this pandemic while actively supporting ever-changing health and safety guidelines adopted by the state,” Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said in a statement. “…If the goal is to put public health above politics, the administration will amend the rule to focus enforcement efforts on individuals who are not complying instead of punishing and attempting to demonize innocent businesses.”