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County ends year with change

It was a year of planning and changes for Vermilion County government with current projects finishing and new projects and administration taking shape.

Vermilion County Board Chairman Gary Weinard is among the most recent changes in the county’s government. He took over as the Republican chairman after local GOP established board majority in the November general election.

It was the first time in more than 20 years that the Republicans had won county board majority in Vermilion County. Weinard took over as chairman on Dec. 2 and described it as a “tight learning curve” for the job.

“I’ve been around 18 years as a county board member and didn’t realize the width and depth of the responsibility for the chairman,” he said, adding his first few weeks “have been a learning process.”

Weinard, a Hoopeston-area farmer, replaced former chairman Jim McMahon, who served six years as chairman. He takes over a county government that just passed its sixth-straight budget without a tax increase, but is facing several questions.

The most recent questions surround the November referendum passed by voters to allow electrical aggregation in the county. Originally expected to cover all but a select few areas of the county, the referendum was recently determined to only be available to unincorporated areas.

That creates a problem for the county, which was hoping a fee paid by the aggregation company, Integrys Energy Services, would help to cover planned construction to parts of the aging Vermilion County Courthouse.

“With this ruling that it only applies in the unincorporated areas, we’re back to square one on what kind of revenue stream that will generate,” Weinard said.

The ruling was handed down in mid-December by the Illinois Power Agency, which oversees aggregation programs in the state. Despite the ruling, the county has continued forward by submitting its plan to the Illinois Commerce Commission.

In addition, Integrys officials announced after the ruling they would offer the same program rate to residents in incorporated areas of the county. Integrys also is meeting with city and village officials, who now must look at passing their own referendum in order to offer residents electrical aggregation.

Residents also passed a referendum in November giving the county the authority to look at options including the potential sale of the county-owned nursing home. The facility is expected to show a $1.2 million loss during the upcoming fiscal year.

The future, however, is not up in the air for wind farm projects in Vermilion County. The California Ridge Wind project was the first wind farm to begin construction in Vermilion County and is expected to be finished with the close of 2012.

Invenergy Wind LLC announced Wednesday that construction of the wind farm had been completed and full commercial operations of the plant had begun.

“Our California Ridge project came to fruition with the support of the local community, and we’re proud to invest in the future of east central Illinois,” said Jim Shield, chief development officer of Chicago-based Invenergy in a statement issued on Wednesday.

The California Ridge Wind project consists of as many as 134 wind turbines, 104 of which will be in Vermilion County. The project covers 23,000 acres of private land in Vermilion County. The wind farm starts along County Road 2150N just north of Newtown in Pilot Township and stretches north and west to just across the line into Compromise and Ogden townships in Champaign County.

Energy produced from the turbines will be purchased by the Tennessee Valley Authority through a long-term purchase agreement.

The company confirmed earlier this year that it is considering adding a second phase to the project. No final decisions have been announced up to this point.

contributed by Brian L Huchel at The Commercial-News

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