At council meeting, supporters protest cuts to the arts
on June 8, 2011
Residents representing Oakland arts groups, libraries and redevelopment projects pled with councilmembers at Tuesday’s night City Council meeting to find alternatives to making drastic cuts to help close the city’s $58 million budget deficit.
Under the “all cuts” budget option—one of the three budget scenarios proposed by Mayor Jean Quan last month—fire stations, libraries, recreation facilities and cultural arts programs would be hit the hardest in the city’s attempt to trim expenses. In particular, all cultural programs paid for out of the General Fund budget would be eliminated. The city’s cultural program budget supports 370 full-time jobs in Oakland’s arts industry from managing community gallery spaces to running art classes for kids.
During the meeting’s open forum session, the arts community dominated the conversation about the proposed budget cuts arguing that the arts are important cultural assets to the city that bring in revenue.
Michael Fried, the executive director of Cantare Con Vivo, an Oakland-based music performance program, said General Fund money helps his organization put on free orchestra concerts for city residents and funds regular music classes for Oakland school students. Fried called the local arts scene “the heartbeat of the Oakland renaissance” and said Oakland would be “committing cultural and civic suicide” by eliminating funding for arts programs.
Helen Stoltzfus, executive director of ALICE Arts, an arts education program, told the councilmembers it makes economic sense to protect the arts and cultural funding. “For every $100 that is invested,” she said, “$1,500 is leveraged in funds that come back to Oakland.”
Adrian Harper, president of Friends of the African American Museum Library of Oakland, spoke about the possible closure of the majority of the library system. Under the proposed “all cuts” budget, the library system would be reduced from 18 to four branches. The four remaining branches would be open three days a week, and 159 of the library’s 217 full-time employees would be cut. It would also close the African American Museum and Library of Oakland, which contains many unique items that chronicle the history of African Americans in the East Bay.
Harper said the museum houses Oakland’s African American historical footprint “and it simply cannot be replaced.” He added that many individuals have trusted the museum with their life’s work, including former Mayor Ron Dellums, whose congressional papers are kept there.
After a 20-minute open forum session, the council shifted to a heated debate over the whether or not the city should sell off the historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center in downtown Oakland.
Oakland has tried to sell the boarded-up building for years. Now Mayor Jean Quan is urging the city’s redevelopment agency buy to it for $28.3 million which she believes would help lower the city’s budget deficit over the next three years. The redevelopment agency would use state funds to buy the building, thereby putting money into the city’s coffers. Quan said that many California cities have attempted a similar move this past year to balance their budgets.
But District 6 councilmember Desley Brooks said this would violate redevelopment law because redevelopment funds are meant to be spent in the area that originally received the funding. Quan plans to use $16 million from the Central City East Project Pact (CCEPP), which was created revitalize the commercial and residential areas in the Eastlake, Fruitvale, Central East Oakland and Elmhurst neighborhoods, but does not include the area where the Kaiser Convention Center is located. The CCEPP is meant to improve the neighborhoods by eliminating blight, creating jobs, improving the physical environment and addressing affordable housing.
Brooks said it’s shameful “to tell people who live in primarily poor neighborhoods that they need to put up the balance of the money to close the budget.”
Gloria Jeffrey, co-chair of the CCEPP, voted with other CCEPP members against the city taking the money with 17 other pact members on Monday night. “You cannot use redevelopment funds to budget your balance of general funds, and that’s what they’re doing,” Jeffrey said. “We object to that. We fought hard to get that pact going and we need to see some beautification out in our area. We don’t have retail stores, we don’t have banks, and we want to maintain our area and bring back a quality of life.”
District 5 Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente agreed with Jeffrey and Brooks, saying that the potential sale would be illegal.
Brooks also said that using redevelopment agency money to purchase a building does not satisfy the goals of redevelopment agencies, which are meant to enable projects that support job creation and blight prevention. “What’s the project?” Brooks asked the room. “There is supposed to be a project connected with it—where are the engineering drawings? Someone please tell me.”
After a few moments of silence as Brooks scanned the room, City Administrator Lamont Ewell responded. “There is no project,” he said, adding, “Yes, it’s to help close the budget.” But Ewell said that the sale would not be illegal. “We have checked this out with the attorneys,” he said, “and it meets with immediate and long-term needs of our city to stabilize our city.”
The idea of using redevelopment agency funds to buy city property is related to Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget for 2011-12, which will eliminate the state’s redevelopment agencies. Over the last couple of months, the Oakland City Council and Redevelopment Agency have been asked the City Administer to approve actions that will allow staff to quickly enter into contracts to complete specified agency-funded projects before the agency is dissolved.
Back in March, the City Administrator’s Office identified a list of up to ten other potential sites for the city to sell to the redevelopment agency. The city’s 2010-11 General Purpose Fund budget assumes property sales from the city to the agency for a total $3.4 million.
The council tabled the agenda item for further discussion for the next city council Meeting. Councilmembers will vote on the Oakland Redevelopment Agency’s budget until at the end of the month – the same time when a final decision on the city budget will be made.
The next city council meeting will take place on Tuesday, June 22.
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