by The Chicago Times Staff

June 14, 2021

ROCKTON, IL — A massive chemical plant fire near the Illinois-Wisconsin border that sent black plumes of smoke into the air is expected to burn for several days as firefighters retreat and residents are ordered to evacuate.

Around 7 a.m., a fire broke out at the Chemtool Inc. plant at 1165 Prairie Hill Road in Rockton, about 10 miles north of Rockford, according to Rockton Fire Protection District Chief Kirk Wilson.  The cause of the fire is still unknown, and no major injuries have been reported.  To avoid runoff and contamination of waterways, firefighters stopped spraying the fire with water.

As a precaution, residents were evacuated within a mile of the plant, he said.  So far, air quality tests show the air is OK at ground level, Wilson said.  An employee of the plant told a reporter from WTVO that he had been at work for less than an hour when the fire alarms went off and someone yelled “fire.”

According to WTVO, the fire was possibly caused by the failure of a pipe that transported hot grease within the plant.  Employees have been evacuated in the past for minor emergencies, but nothing on this scale, according to the employee.

Governor J.B. Pritzker activated the state’s emergency center and deployed the Illinois National Guard to the fire.  In a statement, Pritzker said, “I am closely monitoring this situation and will make all resources available to the surrounding communities as we work to keep people safe.”

The EPA responded to the scene to conduct air monitoring and sampling, according to the agency.  The fire’s smoke drifted south and southeast past Rockford, prompting the city to advise residents to stay inside, close windows, and turn off air conditioners.

The Ogle County sheriff’s office said smoke covered a third of the county south of Rockford.  By the time firefighters arrived, the fire had spread quickly, aided in part by strong winds, and was shooting through the plant’s roof.

He said about 70 employees evacuated the plant on their own and were unharmed.  A minor, unspecified injury was sustained by one firefighter.  He said about 175 firefighters from over 40 local fire departments were dispatched to help.

According to Wilson, the fire department also has reconnaissance crews scouring the town for fires caused by falling burning debris.  He stated that any debris falling from the sky was assumed to be non-toxic.

In total, about 150 homes in Rockton were evacuated.  The Salvation Army has stated that it is assisting with the response.

Chemtool Inc., headquartered in Rockton, is the country’s largest grease manufacturer.  It operates a plant in Crystal Lake, Illinois, which is located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.


by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

June 6, 2021

SPRINGFIELD — After promising as a candidate that he would reject partisan maps drawn by either party, Democrat Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a measure drawn by Democrats on Friday establishing legislative district boundaries to control elections for the next ten years.  No matter your political party, it should be apparent we have elected a lying opportunist.  How can you trust anyone that lies to your face with a smile?

As a candidate in 2018, Pritzker advocated for an impartial committee to draft maps, removing political factors from the process.  He promised to veto any map created by politicians.  The Governor has now proven to be a complete partisan liar.  Earlier this month, he backtracked on his promise, claiming that the independent procedure never materialized and he stated that he would reject an unfair map.  However, who defines what is unfair but those in power.  According to Republican sources they were never allowed to view the data used or allowed to fully take part in the process.  Obviously the only independent procedure was done by the Democrats.

Senator Dan McConchie, the minority leader in the Senate, described it as the work of political insiders who used flawed data to further cement their control of Illinois, which is ranked one of the worst governed states in the Union.  This decline was initiated and curated by Democrat control and policies implemented over the decades.  Just ask Mike Madigan and look at your property tax bill.

According to McConchie, Pritzker “. . . cares more about keeping power for his political friends than fair elections where the people of Illinois can pick their elected officials, instead of politicians picking their voters…he proved today that he’s just another old-school, tax-raising politician who cannot be trusted.”

To reflect demographic trends and safeguard voting rights, political borders must be adjusted following each decennial Census.  Delays caused by the COVID-19 epidemic have delayed the release of detailed census data until late summer.

Republicans and many left-leaning activists slammed the maps and their production, claiming that Democrats used obsolete Census data.  Democrats cited a June 30 deadline for the Legislature to develop maps, but that constitutionally mandated deadline simply marked the end of Democrats’ exclusive control over them beyond that date.  Clearly this is a grab for more power.

We have elected a power-hungry gang of hypocrites, liars, and con artists that will diminish your political and economic rights.  No wonder residents are fleeing the state.  No matter your party affiliation, beware of who you elect.  Ask what are their true intentions?

Frank Conklin, Illinois Political Reporter/Columnist for The Chicago Times.  Views and comments expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of The Chicago Times.


by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

June 1, 2021

SPRINGFIELD, IL — Illinois lawmakers stayed up to the wee hours Tuesday in Springfield, passing a budget proposal and other bills.  Legislators did not get around to debating the proposed $42.2 billion budget until after 11:30 p.m. and passed the bill at 2:30 am.

The bill will now be sent to Gov. Pritzker for signature.  In addition, lawmakers passed a comprehensive election bill that includes relocating the primary from March 15 to June 28 next year.  They also approved a package of ineffective ethics reforms for legislators.

Illinois lawmakers began putting together a state budget on Monday, based on tax revenue sources that have recovered much faster than expected from the global pandemic, as well as $2.5 billion in spending from a multiyear federal relief package.

The plan put together on the last day of the spring session incorporates only a portion of the $8 billion in COVID-19 relief money Illinois expects from Congress last winter – but that pot includes $1 billion in additional construction projects, a fund that was only known to Democrats until Monday.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris declared a balanced budget, which includes the $350 million extra for public schools promised in a 2017 school-funding overhaul, but which Gov. Pritzker initially said would have to be skipped for the second year in a row.

In comparison to the rest of the legislative agenda, which had to be completed by midnight, after which adopting legislation required a three-fifths majority vote, the budget was expected to be a relatively easy lift.  Following the deadly 2019 Aurora warehouse shooting, there was a contentious plan to tighten gun ownership restrictions, as well as a pandemic-interrupted ethics overhaul that appeared in bipartisan form early Monday evening.

The Senate proposal would prohibit sitting legislators from lobbying other government units, a practice exposed in a fall 2019 bribery indictment, and establish a six-month cooling-off period to end the long-despised practice of a legislator resigning one day and lobbying ex-colleagues the next.  However, Chicago, which has its own program, is exempt from the creation of a statewide registration system for lobbyists at all levels of government.  The conflicting systems opening loopholes prompted a question from reporters attending a briefing on the measure.

The budget plan paints a much brighter picture than the “pain” – deep budget cuts – that Pritzker predicted would be unavoidable after voters soundly rejected his proposed constitutional amendment in November, which would have allowed for a graduated income tax system that would have taxed the wealthy more harshly and generated an extra $3 billion per year.

The ballot initiative was denounced by Republicans as a blank check for free-spending Democrats, who control both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship.  They persisted in their claims that Pritzker had more than enough money as revenues continued to exceed expectations.

Their reward was a promise from Pritzker to cut fewer of the business and job-creating incentives they negotiated with the Democrat in 2019, tax breaks that the governor lauded at the time but now refers to as unaffordable “loopholes.”  To raise $636 million in additional revenue, Democrats drafting the budget planned to cut three programs.  Pritzker proposed eliminating eight incentivized spending programs in February.

Illinois’ allotment of the American Rescue Plan Act would provide $1.5 billion to pandemic-affected areas of the state.  Hundreds of millions of dollars would be set aside for the Department of Human Services to help the homeless, prevent suicide, counsel schoolchildren through the trauma of the previous year, and provide services “for our first responders who have gone through a year of hell and deserve all the support we can give them,” according to Harris.  The tourism and hospitality industries, which are in bad shape, would receive $528 million.

Illinois borrowed $5 billion from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits to those who were displaced as a result of the pandemic.  ARPA would contribute $100 million to cover the interest on the loan, but principal repayment would be deferred.

However, another massive debt has been paid off.  At the height of the pandemic last summer, the state owed $1.2 billion on a $3.2 billion federal loan, which was due in December 2023.  Pritzker and legislative leaders announced ten days ago that they would pay off the loan early to save $100 million in interest.

In addition to the ongoing $51 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure plan approved in 2019, the ARPA cache is providing $1 billion for additional construction projects leading up to the 2022 election season.

House Republican budget negotiator Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon questioned Harris on how projects are chosen.   It is the “normal process,” according to Harris, for legislators and state agencies to make requests for work to be done.


by The Chicago Times Staff

May 31, 2021

MOLINE, IL — According to Illinois State Police, an alleged drunk driver struck an Illinois State Trooper’s vehicle last Monday in Moline.

The ISP sergeant had completed a traffic stop and was parked on the shoulder of the road with his emergency lights flashing when a green Jeep crossed the white fog line and crashed into the rear driver’s side of the car.  Dashcam video of the incident shows the Jeep, driven by Matthew Scherer, 55, rolling several times after colliding with the ISP cruiser.  According to police, both drivers were taken to local hospitals with minor injuries.

“ISP Troopers across the state put their lives on the line every day to keep our roads safe . . . These crashes are entirely avoidable, and I urge the public to avoid endangering the lives of others by making responsible decisions behind the wheel; always drive sober and move over when approaching a stationary vehicle on the side of the road,” said District 7 Commander Captain Jason Dickey.

The driver faces several charges, including Scott’s Law, driving while intoxicated, and reckless driving.

A person who violates Scott’s Law commits a business offense and faces a $10,000 fine for a first offense, according to police.  If the violation causes another person to be injured, the violator’s driver’s license will be suspended for at least six months.


Consolidated Press News File

May 19, 2021

MASCOUTAH, IL — After a successful landing at an Illinois airport on Tuesday, two pilots ejected from a F-15QA. 

The emergency ejection occurred around 7:30 a.m. when the plane was parked on a runway at MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in St. Clair County.

The pilots, who ejected from an F-15 fighter jet were not seriously hurt, though one pilot was taken to the hospital for evaluation.

Air Force officials released the following statement regarding the incident:

“An F-15QA, recently accepted by the Air Force from the Boeing Corporation, departed the runway today at MidAmerica Airport, Ill.  Two U.S. active-duty pilots who were on board ejected safely and received minor injuries.  The aircraft was slated to be transferred to the Qatari Air Force through the Foreign Military Sales program.  The incident is currently under investigation. “


by Frank Conklin, The Chicago Times

May 18, 2021

SPRINGFIELD — On Monday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced expanded housing and rental aid for Illinois residents, offering grants of up to $25,000 in federal aid.

Pritzker’s housing assistance announcement included more than just the fresh funds.  He also stated that the state’s eviction moratorium will come to an end in August, with a “gradual phase out over the next few months.”

Pritzker stated, “The Illinois Rental Assistance Program is a testament to how good government can make a life-changing difference for people when our dollars… follow our values.” “With this program expansion, we will be able to increase the impact for tens of thousands of Illinois residents.”

The Governor was joined by state senators and representatives from Chicago, as well as other state officials, for the announcement of the rental aid program, which is projected to help 120,000 renters.

Beginning later this summer, struggling homeowners will be able to access $400 million in mortgage assistance, according to Pritzker.  The $25,000 one-time award will cover missing rent payments as far back as June 2020, as well as pre-payments until August 2021, or until the funds are depleted.

Any Illinois renter whose household income in 2020 was less than 80% of the area median income, who is behind on their rent payments, and has faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, is eligible for up to $25,000 in rental assistance, which will be given directly to their housing provider or landlord.

According to a news release introducing the initiative, those who earn less than half of their area’s median income and households with one or more people who have been unemployed for at least 90 days would be given priority.  Residents can apply for the rental payment program from Monday to June 7.