One down, one to go

Alexander County is one step closer to starting the buyout process it began almost two years ago.

During the July 16 County Board meeting, Alexander County Engineer Jeff Denny announced he had received a granting agreement from the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Denny said he signed and sent the document to Springfield to finalize that end of the process. However, the County is still waiting on the granting agreement from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which is providing 25% of the $11.7 million grant. However, Denny has met with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources engineer to discuss the progress of their granting agreement and Denny said he expects to have their agreement in the next several weeks.

Denny said the County has been required by the state to wait on these two documents before they could begin the buyout process.

“The way the State of Illinois works is … if they are funding a project they will not let you start before your granting agreements are in place,” he said.

He said while it has not exactly been pleasant having to sit in wait, he understands why he had to.

“You have to have the legal framework, otherwise you are going to have problems,” Denny said.

Denny and his office have not sat idle these last several months, however. Denny said his office have done all they can do to expedite the process as much as they can. He said prior to getting the granting agreements. They posted job notices for appraisal companies and after receiving bids for the different jobs, made their decisions on who to hire so when the time came, they could make an official decision. Denny said had they waited until after the agreements were received it could have drug out the buyout process for weeks, even months.

During this time the County has brought in the Southern Five Planning Commission to administrate the grant. Regional planner at Southern Five Crystal Davenport will handle the project and said her office is there coordinate with the State and County to ensure property owners have a smooth ride through the buyout process.

Davenport said property owners need to understand that the amount they are offered  for their home or property will be based on pre-flood market value and to help the process along, they should be ready to show documentation for insurance or assistance received after for the flood and receipts for work and improvements made to their properties as this will help expedite their appraisal process and ensure they get a fair assessment of their property.

Once the process is able to start, Denny said appraisers will go to each property and assess its value and this may take time. He said it is not possible to get everyone done at once.

Denny said while it may seem like very little progress is being made at the present time, he is confident the start of the process is closer at hand than people may think.

“I think in the next couple of months you will start seeing some to the point of making offers,”he said.

– Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

Meridian still fighting mold problem

Meridian School District got more bad news last week when the Illinois Department of Labor confirmed that there are dangerous levels of mold in the district’s elementary school.

During a special meeting July 8, Meridian School Board decided to allow the sale of school bonds, a method of borrowing money from local investors. The bonds would be paid back like a loan at a low interest rate. However, because of district policy, the board can only borrow so much. Janet Ulrich, regional superintendant of schools and interim district superintendent, said the district is only able to borrow $1.625 million. This would put the district at the low end of the $1-3 million it has been estimated to cost for the district to fix the mold issue.

Ulrich said no decision has been made as to how the district will move forward with resolving the mold problem but she said it is the board’s goal to keep the school start date of Aug. 12

“They intend to strive for that date,” Ulrich said. She clarified, however, they are not clear yet how they will meet that goal. If the building is safe for students to reenter by the time school starts, she said that is the best option however there was talk of erecting temporary structures to hold class in, in the interim.  She also said the Board discussed doing a split schedule where the high school building would be split between elementary and high school students, with each group getting access for five hours each day. While this would not be ideal, this schedule would still put them one hour above the state require four hours of instruction time. If this is the decided route, Ulrich said teachers would break down their lesson plans to core essentials so students would still be taught necessary skills and would not fall behind.

Ulrich said the process has been a slow one because the district is not sure where the money will come from.

“Decisions are being held because of the funding issue,” she said. The state has not committed to providing the district with any emergency funding. Rep. Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) has vowed to help Meridian in any way he can. He could not be reached for comment for this report.

During routine maintenance to the elementary school in June, workers found large areas of mold in the walls of the school. Architect Bob Huff was called in to assess the situation. His tests came back positive for high levels of dangerous mold. He said while the mold had not yet gone airborne, it was only a matter of time and that the district needed to find a solution to the problem before students could return to the building in the fall.

– Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

Southern Ill. to get 911 update

Southern Illinois Next Generation 911 project nears completion

When the Counties of Southern Illinois organization power up their new, Next Generation 911 system for testing next month, they will be one step closer to completing a project that is nearly five years in the making.

Counties of Southern Illinois (CSI), a collection of 15 counties and the City of Marion, is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization preparing to launch the first system of its kind found anywhere in the United States.

Simply put, the Next Generation 911 system is 911 online and will allow users the ability to send pictures and videos as well as audio.  The CSI organization’s work was granted National Pilot Project status in 2009 by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and was made possible through partnerships with Clearwave Communications, Illinois Institute of Technology and Southern Illinois University’s Geography Department.  The more than $2 million project was largely funded through grants and built on the backbone of Clearwave Communications’ $43 million rural broadband initiative.

“It’s really exciting that we’re going to be able to do all this and that southern Illinois is the only place in the nation that will have this when we come online later this year,” Johnson County 911 coordinator Jim Cuff said, adding that no where else in the nation is a project of its kind so close to launching. “It just speaks to the knowledge and cooperation that is going on down here.”

When the cooperative began, it consisted of nearly 20 counties throughout the southern region of Illinois.  Johnson County joined early with Jackson, Williamson and Saline counties laying the foundation for the project and was soon followed by Alexander and Pulaski.

“We knew the more people we could get in this project, the better the project would be,” Cuff said of the snowball-like growth CSI experienced early on.

As the scope of the mission became clear and objectives identified, a few counties backed out deciding costs were too great and the feasibility of completion too uncertain.  Even with grants that covered the bulk of the costs, CSI members paid development fees, which Alexander County 911 coordinator Becky Kleckner estimates have cost the County between $35-40,000 if not more so far. Alexander, Pulaski, Massac, Union, Gallatin, White, Perry, Marion, Clay, Richland and Wabash counties are included in the cooperative that will share in the nation’s first NextGen-911 system to come online.

“Where else in Illinois, or likely anywhere else in the nation, do you have fifteen counties working together on a project? It’s unheard of; a feat in itself,” Cuff said.

Members of CSI will manage and share two data centers, with one located in Murphysboro and the other in Harrisburg, and have the capacity to reroute traffic and calls in times of need to any of the nearly 20 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) available on the network.  The Clearwave broadband initiative created a fiber optic infrastructure throughout all of southern Illinois making NextGen-911 possible.  Cuff said emerging technologies such as telematics, text messaging, image support and video streaming are not part of today’s existing 911 services.

“Right now the only thing we can take is a voice call from somebody,” Cuff said.  “If you send a text to 911 it goes nowhere, and we’re not capable of receiving video or pictures either.”

Alexander County state’s attorney Jeff Farris said he thinks this new development will help him in the courtroom.

“I’m hoping it will assist in the prosecution of crime,” he said.

Farris said this will all depend, however, on how easy it would be to validate and admit the photos and videos collected from 911 calls as evidence. He said the images or video would need to be brought before a judge to prove its authentication. However, Farris said because these would go through the 911 system, this process may be easier than it seems. He said the common types of crime in the area, battery, assault etc., which are typically difficult to prosecute because of a lack of witness cooperation, may become easier to prosecute given this new technology.

While Next Generation 911 has not yet launched anywhere else in the United States, the emergency 911 system has been looked at as antiquated for some time, according to CSI Project Manager Pat Lustig.

“Over five years ago we realized that 911 systems had outlived the circuit switched based networks that have facilitated 911 call delivery for the last 20 years,” Lustig said in a 2012 BroadbandIllinois.org article.  “New technologies and consumer expectations were leading the way. There could only be one choice: transition to this new IP architecture.”

Lustig is one of four members of the CSI Executive Board, which includes Chairman Ken Smith, Secretary Jana Fear and Treasurer Tracy Felty.  The board overseas the management of the project and each CSI member supports the board through its 911 county coordinator.  Johnson County 911 Coordinator said it is this network of teamwork that produced the project to begin with and would continue once its online.

“It started as a vision five years ago with coordinators coming together and looking at the system and saying ‘this is where we should be headed, and this is where we are now, how are we going to get to where we should be headed to get to the next generation of 911,’ and the fifteen counties have taken that vision and it’s becoming a reality.”

Isaac Smith contributed to this report.

– Joe Rehana can be reached at (618)-995-9445

State rep. fired up to help Meridian mold problem

State representative Brandon Phelps (D-Harrisburg) is standing strong with Meridian School District.

Phelps attended an informational meeting June 25 at Meridian High School regarding the districts mold problem. He said he was incensed at what he heard and immediately took action.

“I got involved. I started making phone calls. I started opening up the lines of communication because I thought it was ridiculous and embarrassing that some of these departments were not getting back to these officials at Meridian School,” Phelps said.

He got results. After a day and a half, the Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL) was at Meridian Elementary performing tests to see if the building is inhabitable. Phelps said it may take a few days to get results, but the community members he talked to were happy the IDOL had come.

As of July 1, Regional superintendant of schools and interim Meridian School superintendent Janet Ulrich said the results were still not in from IDOL, but she expects the district will not have to wait much longer. She said a special board meeting is being scheduled for July 8 to discuss the results and to try and move forward with a plan.

Should the tests come back with the same bad  results the school received from architect Bob Huff, Phelps said he is determined to help the district in any way he can.

“I am going to do anything and everything I have to do make sure Meridian gets taken care of,” he said.

–Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

Meridian to manage Mold

The situation for Meridian School District went from bad, to worse.

What started last month as an alarming budgetary issue where projected state funding cuts forced the District to eliminate electives from the high school has now turned into the District having considering options to remove dangerous mold from the walls of the elementary school. Officials said this means choosing between one of three things:

•The school can fix the building that is there, going one room at a time and repairing the damage caused by excess moisture building in the drywall.

•Add a new wing on to the high school or erect temporary buildings to have class in. •All of these options cost money that the District may or may not have.

The possible budget cuts may leave the District more than one hundred thousand dollars short in the fall and District superintendent Terry Mooreland said remedying the mold problem could cost the District $1-3 million. Whatever the cost, though, he said they are fighting the clock and need to come to a decision.

“We need to figure out which way we are going to go,” Mooreland said.

During an informational meeting held for parents June 13 at Meridian High School, Mooreland along with regional superintendent of schools Janet Ulrich took questions and comments from parents. During the meeting, Ulrich said it came to light the District’s borrowing power was not big enough to complete a brand new building project. She said Meridian School District has also been turned down by the state for emergency funding, however she said she has not given up.

During the meeting, Mooreland and Ulrich turned the floor over to architect Bob Huff to discuss the specifics of the mold problem and to explain the test results he found. Huff said after conducting air tests and taking samples from the walls of the school, the results were, in a way, hard to read.

“That test result had so much mold in it … that they could not even count it, it was so high,” Huff said. He did clarify, however, the mold had not yet become airborne and therefore no students or school staff had been exposed to the dangerous spores. Although, he said it was only a matter of time and that the District was lucky it caught it when it did. He said despite the samples coming from a handful of locations throughout the building he has no doubts that the problem is widespread.

“Once it [mold] gets in a building, it just rips right through and if there is water there, it is going to stay alive,” Huff said.

Because of the way the building was constructed and that it is located on very wet ground, Huff speculates that excess moisture and mold growth has been a problem since the school was constructed 30 years ago.

Mooreland only has ten more days on the job and this complicates an already complicated situation. He will be in retirement as of July 1 and Ulrich will be working with the architect until the board decides how to replace him as superintendent. She has been working closely with Mooreland throughout the process to ensure she can handle the situation when he leaves office. She said she has reached out to the Illinois Department of Labor to conduct a second air quality test, which she said will help the Board make a more informed decision.

On paper the situation seems hopeless, however Ulrich said the decision is simple for Mooreland and the school board: it all comes down to safety.

“Decisions will be made based on the safety of the children first,” she said. “It’s too bad its happened … but I do believe the board and Mr. Mooreland are putting the student’s safety first in this whole situation.”

–Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

Minor flooding fills streets in Cairo

Because of heavy rains, parts of Cairo flooded June 1.

A truck drives through standing water June 1 on Sycamore St. in Cairo. Cairo fire chief John Meyer said because of heavy rains the day before, the sewer system was overwhelmed and backed up. Emergency responders were called out at 4 a.m. and began pumping out the water. The crews had the flooded streets cleared by 3 p.m. that same day. -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
A truck drives through standing water June 1 on Sycamore St. in Cairo. Cairo fire chief John Meyer said because of heavy rains the day before, the sewer system was overwhelmed and backed up. Emergency responders were called out at 4 a.m. and began pumping out the water. The crews had the flooded streets cleared by 3 p.m. that same day. — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen

Keeping kids safe

Members of regional Masonic Lodges went to Cairo Head Start April 8 to put together emergency packets for the program’s students.

Thomas Robertson, right, of Grand Tower and member of Masons Cobden Lodge 466, collects DNA April 8 from a Head Start student in Cairo. Robertson and his fellow Masons were enrolling Head Start students in the Masons-sponsored Illinois Child Identification Program. Each child is fingerprinted, has DNA taken and they record a video saying where they live as well as other key identifiers. Robertson said all of this information is put together in a packet and given to each family so they can provide information to police in case of emergencies. Floyd Koehler of Vienna Lodge 150 said it was the goal of the regional Masons to put together these packets for each Head Start in all of the seven southern counties in the state. Robertson said taking care of children is a high priority for Masons. “Children are one of our concerns and anything we can do to make them safer is part of being a Mason,” he said -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Thomas Robertson, right, of Grand Tower and member of Masons Cobden Lodge 466, collects DNA April 8 from a Head Start student in Cairo. Robertson and his fellow Masons were enrolling Head Start students in the Masons-sponsored Illinois Child Identification Program. Each child is fingerprinted, has DNA taken and they record a video saying where they live as well as other key identifiers. Robertson said all of this information is put together in a packet and given to each family so they can provide information to police in case of emergencies. Floyd Koehler of Vienna Lodge 150 said it was the goal of the regional Masons to put together these packets for each Head Start in all of the seven southern counties in the state. Robertson said taking care of children is a high priority for Masons. “Children are one of our concerns and anything we can do to make them safer is part of being a Mason,” he said — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen

Search still on for missing Cairo woman

Sandra Farris, photo provided by family
Sandra Farris, photo provided by family

It has been a long five days for the Pearman family.

In the early evening  March 28 Donna Pearman and her daughter Shelly Pearman filled a missing persons report for Sandra Farris, Donna’s sister and Shelly’s aunt.

Donna said her sister regularly went for a walks through St. Mary’s park. So that she was gone for part of the afternoon was nothing to be concerned about. However Donna said when she realized her sister still was not home by dinner time and after noticing her purse, cell phone and personal belongs were still in the house, she began to worry.

Donna said once she realized something was amiss she began calling important contacts in her sister’s cell phone to rule out where she could have been. She had no luck.

“That’s when I called the cops,” Donna said.

That night Donna said she and her daughter stayed up all night,  hoping for word and spent the following day going through the neighborhood with a photo of Sandra asking if any neighbors had seen her.

Jerry Held, coordinator for the Alexander County Emergency management Agency said he was called at 6:30 p.m. Friday by the Cairo Fire Department to assist in a search. Held said a twenty-man  team with members of his office, the Cairo Fire Department, Cairo Auxiliary Fire Department as well as the Horseshoe Lake Fired Department searched until 2:30 a.m. March 30 and were back out only hours later.

“They were searching the wooded areas long the levee and the river,” Held said. He added the team was searching in abandoned buildings in Cairo as well. Held said on March 30 the team covered 42 miles before ending the search that afternoon. They found no sign of Farris.

“We did everything I think we could do as a group,” Held said. He said the investigation is now in the hands of the Cairo Police Department.

Cairo Police Chief Bernard Brown declined comment for this story because the investigation is still open.

Despite no sign of her sister as of April 2, Donna has not lost hope. She has been out looking for Sandra everyday since she went missing.

Donna said the stress of not knowing what happened to her sister is something she wishes no one had to experience.

“I’m scared. I’m so scared,” Donna said “I wish this on no one,”

Officials say Farris is 55, 5’6, 134 lbs and ha brown hair and blue eyes.

As of press time, no sign of Sandra’s whereabouts had been found. Police are asking anyone with information to call their office at (618)-734-2131

– Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

Buyout offers still months away

Clinton Pecord looks at floodwaters March 25 on the back of his property in Cache. Pecord lives a few hundred yards from the house he grew up in and said flooding has been something he has dealt with all of his life. However the flooding in 2011 was the highest he has seen on the property. He said even though the flood was difficult, he is not sure he will accept a buyout. “It really depends on what kind of offer they give us,” Pecord said.-- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Clinton Pecord looks at floodwaters March 25 on the back of his property in Cache. Pecord lives a few hundred yards from the house he grew up in and said flooding has been something he has dealt with all of his life. However the flooding in 2011 was the highest he has seen on the property. He said even though the flood was difficult, he is not sure he will accept a buyout. “It really depends on what kind of offer they give us,” Pecord said.– Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen

Thirty-one years since he built his home, Clinton Pecord is not sure he is ready to leave it.

Pecord, a lifelong resident of Cache and no stranger to floodwater, built his house in 1982 where he and his wife Susan live only a few hundred yards from his childhood home. Pecords’ house was built 9 ft. off of the ground and has seen its share of high water. Pecord said the day during the  2011 flood when his family moved out of the house, the water was rising an inch an hour and said at its height, there was 19” of water in his house. It was the highest he had seen the water rise since living there. However, despite the heartache and hassle of having to move out and repair his home, Pecord said he is still not sure if he will accept the buyout he applied for.

“It really depends on what kind of offer they give us,” Pecord said.

Though Alexander County has been approved for state and federal assistance, it may still take several months for residents to see an offer on their flood-damaged homes.

Jeff Denny, Alexander County Engineer, said the next step his office is taking in the buyout process is to confirm granting agreements between the County, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA). These agreements lay out how the $11.7 million granted to the County is to be managed and spent. However, there are still several steps between the recent grant approval and applicants being paid for their homes.

Once the granting agreements have been made, Denny said the first steps are to hire a project manager and an appraisal company. During a County Board meeting March 26, Denny discussed with the board different possibilities of managing the project. Denny presented the idea of hiring Southern 5 for the job, though said nothing could be decided until the granting agreements are made. Both Denny and Ron Davis, State Hazard Mitigation Officer for IEMA said these first few steps are crucial to make sure the rest of the process runs smoothly and yields the best result for those who applied.

“We have to be sure that the people we hire and the work they put out meet certain requirements,” Denny said.  If the County were to make a quick hire without vetting enough candidates, it could in turn slow the process down even further.

“It just brings up all sorts of problems,” he said. Denny explained if the appraiser does a bad job, they could lose money.

Denny was first to admit the process was not a fast one.

“That’s just the unfortunate reality of how the government works,” he said. Once all the hires are made, appraisers will go over a series of months to each of the nearly 170 homes on the buyout list and assess the fair market value of each property. Once these appraisals are completed, Davis said they are sent to IEMA for approval. Once these steps are finished, offers can then be made to homeowners. Davis said it may be close to half a year before offers begin to be made.

“We are probably looking at four or five months down the line until they start to make some offers,” Davis said.

Denny said his office will soon send out letter to grant applicants explaining the next steps in the buyout process and said once the appraisal team and project manager are hired, there will be a public meeting where all applicants can come and ask questions of all involved in the project.

Applicants have been waiting for one and a half years to get word on when they may receive buyout money. Even though the applications were approved, some are still unsure if they will take the money. Pecord and his wife are on a fixed budget and he said they need to make sure they will be able to maintain the same quality of life should they accept the State’s offer.

“We are on a fixed income now and there is no way that I can go and finance a house and have a mortgage payment of $4-500 a month,” he said.

While money is an issue, Pecord said he is just not sure he wants to have to deal with more substantial flooding.

“When you become 65 years of age it becomes a little bit more of a chore,” he said.

Pecord said if he does take the buyout, the decision to move will be an emotional one. He said he does not relish the idea of leaving behind a place he’s known since he was young.

“To move and go somewhere else, it’s really sad thinking that you are going to lose all those memories,” he said.

However, whatever the decision, Pecord will have some time to make up his mind.

– Isaac Smith can be reached at (618)-734-4242

The Week in Photos: March 21, 2013

The visual report from the week of March 21, 2013.

Cairo Chief of Police Bernard Brown, right, briefs patrolman Meric Hawkins, before Hawkins started his shift March 14 at the Cairo Police Department. Brown was appointed Chief of Police in Feb. after Gary Hankins announced his retirement. -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Cairo Chief of Police Bernard Brown, right, briefs patrolman Meric Hawkins, before Hawkins started his shift March 14 at the Cairo Police Department. Brown was appointed Chief of Police in Feb. after Gary Hankins announced his retirement. — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Cairo Fire Deptartment Captain Toronzo Graham works on the scene of a fire March 15 on Interstate 57 North. Meyer said his crew stayed on the scene for six hours where they fought the fire and controlled the scene. -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Cairo fire department captain Toronzo Graham works on the scene of a fire March 15 on Interstate 57 North. Meyer said his crew stayed on the scene for six hours where they fought the fire and controlled the scene. — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Drivers of the burning semi-truck watch as firefighters extinguish their truck March 15. Meyer said no one was hurt as a result of the fire and said it is suspected the blaze was started either by over-heated breaks or an over-heated bearing. The emergency blocked northbound traffic crossing the Mississippi River bridge for more than an hour.  -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Drivers of the burning semi-truck watch as firefighters extinguish their truck March 15. Meyer said no one was hurt as a result of the fire and said it is suspected the blaze was started either by over-heated breaks or an over-heated bearing. The emergency blocked northbound traffic crossing the Mississippi River bridge for more than an hour. — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen

 

From left to right Retha Eurales, troop leader of Girl Scout troop 8562, Arianna Bristol and Jalisa Lattimore talk with Mayor Tyrone Coleman March 14 at Cairo City Hall after Coleman signed a proclimation declaring the week of March 10-16, 2013  Girl Scout Week. -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
From left to right Retha Eurales, troop leader of Girl Scout troop 8562, Arianna Bristol and Jalisa Lattimore talk with Mayor Tyrone Coleman March 14 at Cairo City Hall after Coleman signed a proclamation declaring the week of March 10-16, 2013 Girl Scout Week. — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Senior pitcher Wyatt Isom jumps to avoid stepping on Gallatin County player March 14 during the Bobcats season opener at Meridian High School. The Bobcats fell to the Hawks 7-4 -- Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen
Senior pitcher Wyatt Isom jumps to avoid stepping on Gallatin County player March 14 during the Bobcats season opener at Meridian High School. The Bobcats fell to the Hawks 7-4 — Isaac Smith | The Cairo Citizen