It All Comes Down to the Unions 

Oakland city services, from libraries to parks and tree maintenance, will be devastated unless public workers agree to substantial concessions.

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Unlike some past negotiations between city councilmembers and the unions, the mayor has taken a collaborative approach to bargaining this year. She noted that last year's confrontational approach with the police union didn't work. So this year, she has pushed for the parcel tax, a move the unions have endorsed, and has sided with unions in opposing calls for putting pension-reform measures on the ballot. Quan also has put forward a plan to sell the closed Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center to the city's redevelopment agency for $29 million — a proposal that would help offset even deeper cuts if it's approved.

However, some councilmembers, including De La Fuente and Reid, have objected to the proposal to sell the Kaiser because the redevelopment money that would be used to buy it has been earmarked for revitalization efforts in their districts in central and East Oakland. Reid and De La Fuente are working with Councilwomen Jane Brunner and Desley Brooks on other proposals to help close the budget gap. Meanwhile, Councilwomen Kaplan, Pat Kernighan, Nancy Nadel, and Libby Schaaf are working on a separate set of proposals that likely will be released this week. All appear to agree, however, that the lion's share of cuts must come from public-employee unions.

If the unions refuse, Quan plans to institute mandatory unpaid days off for all city workers, including police. Such a scenario would force veteran cops to return to patrol duty — a move many of them are loath to make — to cover shifts for patrol officers who are out on unpaid leave. The mayor has said that she plans to maintain a patrol force of 290 officers at all times, even when cops are taking unpaid leave.

As for the parcel tax, it'll be up to the council to put it on the ballot. And several councilmembers have indicated that they will wait to see if the unions agree to significant concessions before doing so. "It's one piece of a total effort," Kaplan said of the parcel tax.

However, if the employee givebacks fail to materialize, the council may reject the parcel tax on the grounds that taxpayers shouldn't have to make sacrifices when unions won't. The resulting cuts to city services not only will be unprecedented, but they promise to reverberate throughout Oakland's economy.

Oakland's Cultural Funding Program, for example, provides competitive grants to local artists and nonprofit arts organizations, and for the last 26 years has fostered the growth of a nationally recognized arts and culture scene. In 2010, the program distributed 57 grants totaling $925,126 to such recipients as Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, Diamano Coura West Africa Dance Company, Oakland Underground Film Festival, and Rock Paper Scissors Collective. It also offered financial assistance to sixteen individual artists and fourteen Art in the Schools participants, who reach tens of thousands of public school students each year.

Under the mayor's "all cuts" budget scenario, the Cultural Funding Program would be wiped out. It would lose its two-person administrative staff and all $725,126 it received last year from Oakland's general fund — already a reduction from the $1.2 million it got just three years ago. The program would be left with $200,000 from the Transient Occupancy Tax, a fund established in 2009 to help support a number of city institutions, but no dedicated staff to administer the funds. And even if Oakland's unions agree to substantial concessions, the Cultural Funding Program would still lose its staffing, and its budget would be cut by 50 percent to just over $365,000. Under the mayor's plan, the only way the arts program will be fully saved is with the parcel tax.

Supporters of the Cultural Funding Program argue that the effects of gutting it would reach well beyond the art world. "If they defund the arts, the burgeoning renaissance and all the new restaurants Uptown, that comes to a dead stop," predicted Michael Fried, cofounder of the Oakland Cultural Trust, an organization formed to oppose arts funding cuts in 2009. "You're putting a knife in the heart of the renaissance."

Economically, Oakland's creative and artistic sector encompasses nearly 1,500 entities that employ approximately 5,000 people, Fried said. According to the Oakland Cultural Trust's analyses, through direct expenditures and leveraged funds, nonprofit arts organizations represent between $80 and $100 million in economic activity in Oakland each year.

Along with the arts cuts and the planned closure of fourteen of the city's eighteen library branches, Oakland's more than one hundred city-owned parks may suffer major cutbacks to basic maintenance services, further devastating the public works department. Between November 2008 and July 2009, Oakland's Public Works Agency lost the equivalent of nearly 23 full-time park maintenance employees and $2.5 million in funding — a roughly 25 percent hit absorbed over eight months. The department now stands to lose ten more of its remaining fourteen highest-skilled workers in July. The laid-off gardeners would be replaced by a number of part-time low-skill workers, saving the city $1.5 million.

According to the mayor's budget proposals, both employee concessions and a parcel tax are needed to save the jobs, and the proposed tax measure may not go onto the ballot until November. In the meantime, the gardeners are all but guaranteed to lose their positions, and there's no saying if they'll still be available — or interested — when the city invites them back if the parcel tax passes.

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