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Splash pads versus sewer pipes: Woodstock debates how to spend $3.4M in pandemic relief

Officials weigh how to prioritize benefitting residents immediately and easing cost of future growth

Woodstock officials are debating whether easing the cost of future growth or adding new perks to benefit residents immediately is the best way to spend $3.4 million in federal COVID-19 relief the city is set to receive this year.

Some desires in both categories are likely to get fully or partially funded by the Woodstock City Council with the federal dollars, officials said earlier this month.

But how much will go toward the future needs of the city – like extending utility lines to where new homes might be built – versus meeting the expectations of current residents by upgrading properties, such as the Opera House and athletic fields, and adding new ones, like a splash pad for children, still is being hammered out.

The federal funds are allowed to be used by local governments in a wide range of ways, including offsetting revenue losses caused by the pandemic. But that won’t be necessary in Woodstock, where city staff has said revenues from sales and income taxes and grants have been strong as of late.

Instead, the city staff came up with a wide range of ways to spend the money, including a community solar power farm that might cost $1.5 million; a downtown bicycle path project that could cost $80,000 to engineer and $2 million to build; technology for disadvantaged youth; and upgraded utilities, lighting and landscaping along Route 47, a road set to be expanded by the state to the tune of more than $50 million with work likely starting within two years.

Numerous other projects, including refreshing the city’s website, also were listed by the city staff as expenses the council might want to consider backing.

But council member Darrin Flynn questioned whether the city was even in a position to have such a discussion.

He advocated putting some resources toward updating the city’s comprehensive planning goals and strategies – a task that hasn’t been undertaken since 2008, when officials scoped their vision for what they wanted by 2020 – before deciding how to spend the infusion of federal support.

“We expired in 2020,” Flynn said. “I’m just saying build the foundation first and then the put the roof on it. We seem to be putting the roof on it, and we don’t have the foundation.”

The timing for planning updates is especially ripe, Flynn and Mayor Mike Turner said, because the city also has hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of consulting hours with Smart Growth America, a firm the city gained access to after Woodstock was named the winner of a grant worth millions from T-Mobile.

But Turner said he wants to solidify a plan for spending the money well before the end of 2026, the federal deadline for using the funds.

Council member Wendy Piersall agreed with Flynn, saying she wanted a good chunk of the federal money to go toward planning extensions of utility infrastructure to bring the city a return on its investment in the form of growth.

But Piersall acknowledged how quickly the money could disappear if spent on infrastructure, which generally comes with high price tags to upgrade and newly build. Up to $10 million could be spent by the city on the Route 47 project, depending on how much the city dedicates toward improving lighting and landscaping amid the road expansion.

“There is a lot of stuff on this list that we need and this amount of money is not enough. It’s kind of like when you get a windfall and you’re like, ‘Well it doesn’t pay off the house, but we don’t want to splurge it on a vacation either,’” Piersall said.

Like Flynn, council member Bob Seegers also said he felt the the focus of the federal funding should be on prepping the city for growth. Seegers said he is “disappointed” in the percentage of Woodstock’s housing stock that is occupied by renters as opposed to owners. About 40% of the city’s homes are rentals, city staff has said.

“We can’t make rentals go away. We’re not going to make them go away. However, we can dilute them with more new homes generating revenue for the city, and in order to get new homes, you need infrastructure,” Seegers said. “But to say which project on the infrastructure side we should invest in doesn’t make sense without the long-term strategic planning.”

Council member Tom Niermann said he wanted something tangible that city residents could see as a result of the federal cash right away, suggesting upgrades for ballfields and perhaps adding an outdoor performance venue at Emricson Park, while council member Lisa Lohmeyer’s support for adding a splash pad that could cost about $175,000 to the city’s pool or a public park gained traction.

Turner also wants to consider using some of the money to add public restrooms downtown in the city’s historic Square, saying they could be locked off at night to mitigate the chances for them being misused.

But he also said that the city should pursue updates to its citywide planning guidance to steer some of the upcoming decision-making on the use of the federal dollars.

“Planning has got to be part of it,” Turner said, adding the two executive directors being added to the city’s staff will be tasked with developing strategies to improve the city.

Turner wants to make funding decisions on at least some smaller ticket items that would provide immediate near-term benefits to current residents by January and wants to have further council discussions about the ideas for spending the money later this year.

Sam Lounsberry

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.