Seasonal workers have returned as McHenry County governments see continued financial impact of pandemic

Lifeguards back on duty, Huntley day camp enrollment still below levels previous to COVID-19

McKenna Sweet, who graduated this spring from Woodstock High School, is ecstatic to have her job back as a lifeguard for the Woodstock Water Works public pool facility, which never opened last spring as COVID-19 case counts were the rise in Illinois.

“It was my first real job in 2019. I had babysat before. But it was the best first job I ever possibly could have had,” Sweet said.

She is among hundreds of seasonal employees that have been hired again this year by local governments in McHenry County to perform work at recreational areas, day camps and more, after many cities, villages and park districts put a freeze on hiring temporary workers and even laid off some staff amid the pandemic.

“All the public is super happy to be at the pool. We have people come up to our office and say, ‘We’re so glad you’re open,’” Sweet said, adding that many of her coworkers this year are first-time pool employees.

The Huntley Park District has its Stingray Bay pool area open, too, after keeping it empty in 2020, and Director of Recreation Scott Crowe said the district is up to 297 total employees for 2021, up by more than 100 from last year.

Even now, the Huntley Park District employment roll is still below its 2019 levels, when it had 321 total employees, Crowe said.

The district also had to lay off preschool staffers and workers in its before and after school programs, as well as its summer camp workers, from mid-March through June last year, Crowe said. The workers who returned in July were at 25% of normal levels.

While municipalities have not indicated that another round of layoffs or budget cuts is on the horizon, the pandemic still is impacting local government coffers.

Officials said they are seeing revenue gradually return and are working to make up for a year marked by decisions to defer capital purchases and projects to save money while the global crisis presented economic uncertainty.

“The impacted revenues are recovering slowly. Estimates for the current 2021-22 fiscal year were prepared with cautious optimism,” Crystal Lake Finance Director Jodie Hartman said.

Without receiving more than $1.7 million in federal pandemic relief aid, Crystal Lake would have been down $1.2 million in municipal sales tax revenue alone compared to original forecasts for fiscal 2020-21, Hartman said. Year over year, March through May 2020 saw between 15% and 25% less in taxes per month.

The city’s top 10 impacted revenue sources fell almost $2.7 million short of original projections for the last year, Hartman said.

The city this year budgeted a total sales tax budget less than 1% higher than the receipts from the pre-pandemic fiscal 2018-19, Hartman said.

Algonquin, which moved to freeze and eliminate $1.5 million in general fund expenditures as the pandemic was ramping up, or 7.5% of that fund’s budget, has worked to fill about 40 seasonal positions over recent weeks for its public works and recreation and swimming pool programs, Assistant Village Manager Michael Kumbera said. The village has also recruited for a senior planner position that had been vacant.

“In our current fiscal year, budgeted revenues are down 0.7% with the most significant losses being in the sales tax and investment income revenue categories,” he said, adding that six projects, upgrades, new purchases and replacements remain deferred.

There were more than a dozen capital expenditures on items such as laptops and vehicle, as well as new dugout roofs in local parks that were originally deferred and have since been restored for the village.

Financial pains inflicted by the outbreak were not spread evenly across McHenry County local governments.

While Woodstock cut millions in spending, Huntley’s revenues were actually larger than expected in 2020, even without including federal funding from emergency Congressional relief bills.

“Prior to the stimulus money, the general fund actual revenues came in $1.2 million dollars over budget in fiscal year 2020,” Huntley Director of Finance Cathy Haley said.

Woodstock also ended its fiscal year with $5.2 million more in revenue, or 10.8%, than budgeted, officials wrote in a recent budget report. But much of the extra, about $4.2 million, came in the form of intergovernmental revenues, with most from COVID-19 relief legislation, the report said.

Local governments expect to receive millions more in revenue through the American Rescue Plan being implemented by the White House, but area officials still were waiting on more information about how the programs distributing that stimulus funding will be designed as of last month.

Officials in Crystal Lake, for instance, said the city could receive more than $4 million in federal funding from the latest federal relief package over the next two years, based on the city’s population.

And even as Woodstock has started to spend more by bringing on more seasonal workers like Sweet, the city is watching closely to make sure more budgetary cuts like the millions the city held off on spending in several areas last year will not become necessary.

If those spending slashes do become needed, it may be harder to pull off in coming months because the state’s increasing minimum wage scale means at least some city workers, likely seasonal and temporary ones that just came back to work, could see raises.

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.