Summer hiring is down at municipal parks departments across the state as the stay-home lifestyle needed to fight coronavirus wiped out recreation programs, pool openings and sports leagues.
But as he presided over a shrinking summer program, Brian Hronski didn’t think his job as recreation supervisor in Lino Lakes was in jeopardy. Then, early last month, after 16 years of work, he was told it had been terminated.
“They tell me today is my last day and start throwing boxes in my office. Within two hours, it was cleaned out and nobody said goodbye. No party or cake or thanks for what you did,” Hronski said. “It didn’t have to be that way. … We could’ve waited this out.”
Instead, the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic is forcing business executives, owners and government officials to confront difficult matters that weren’t previously urgent — and make hard choices now.
Businesses felt the imperative first. But it is now starting in state and local governments where disruptions in tax collection and other sources of revenue could add to the troubles of the broader economy.
Last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell suggested the central bank is ready to help state and local governments in much the same fashion it supported banks and the credit market in March. He said the Fed might expand its program to buy municipal debt, for instance.
“We have the evidence of the global financial crisis and the years afterward, where state and local government layoffs and lack of hiring did weigh on economic growth,” Powell said in an appearance before the Senate Banking Committee.
The Legislature last week put off a decision on distributing aid to local governments. And for the moment, the cutback to the parks and rec department in Lino Lakes is an outlier. But it’s a sign of the pressure that is growing on the state’s cities and towns.
“We’re not seeing a trend of people being let go or furloughed by the city in general and parks and rec,” said Emmanuel Emukah, research assistant with the League of Minnesota Cities.
“There might be an impact if there’s not aid provided to cities to weather this storm and help them recover loss in revenue,” he added.
In Blaine, full-time park and rec staff have transitioned to delivering virtual programs, called “Rec at Home,” with videos and contests. The city’s three recreation managers are also checking in at 20 city parks daily to ensure social distancing signage is intact and visitors are following the guidelines, said Ben Hayle, communications manager.
The neighboring community of Shoreview anticipates a significant loss in revenue from closing its community center and canceling summer programs, but that hasn’t translated into letting full-time staff go. “We’re hoping not to have to do that,” said City Manager Terry Schwerm.
The city didn’t hire more than 100 seasonal staffers to work at summer programs and the community center, however.
Before the pandemic, Lino Lakes had steadily reduced parks and rec program offerings and staffing to the point where Hronski was the last full-time recreation employee. City officials didn’t want to duplicate programming they saw being offered by the school district.
Following a decline in youth sports, the recreation department focused more on community events canceled this summer, like Rockin’ in the Park, Blue Heron Days and the annual Family Corn Roast that Hronski first organized a decade ago.
But the onset of the pandemic forced a discussion among city leaders about how Lino Lakes could be more efficient with staffing. They decided the recreation department could get by with just seasonal workers and interns.
“It wasn’t so much a money issue but the changes we’re seeing in the rec department,” City Administrator Jeff Karlson said.
He said rec-program fees didn’t generate enough revenue to cover costs. Hronski’s position was the only full-time position eliminated across all city departments.
Karlson, who is retiring in August, said he doesn’t anticipate similar actions on the horizon, though some city staff have had to reduce hours in light of the pandemic. He’s suggesting the City Council restructure the administrative office upon his departure to save an estimate $120,000 in personnel costs.
Hronski, who is 48, said it’s hard to hear that his responsibilities are being taken over by youths he would typically be hiring the summer.
“It shows how little they value what the parks and rec department did for the city and the work we had done. According to [Karlson], any college kid could do what I was doing,” he said. “It was a slap in my face.”
In addition to youth programs, he ran the senior adult program with field trips and special events. He hired, supervised and trained all recreation staff and oversaw 11 citywide special events each year.
His duties doubled when the other recreation supervisor position was eliminated two years ago.
Before joining Lino Lakes in 2004, Hronski worked eight years for the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation department. Though his four-year degree from Winona State, where he also played baseball, is in physical education, those transferrable skills played well into community rec roles.
Now Hronski is applying for coaching and teaching gigs, though he knows they might pay less and both professions have uncertain fates with the outbreak.
He envisioned spending the rest of his career in Lino Lakes, but losing his job unexpectedly is leading him in a totally different direction.
“It’s exciting to an extent,” he said, “and scary. I don’t know where the roads will lead.”