So, tonight the City Council hopes to finally pass their second budget for the year and close the $42 million deficit hanging over our heads. The biggest point of contention tonight is likely to be suspension of the Cultural Arts funding program.
What program, you ask? Here’s the deal. Every year, we award grants to roughly 70 non-profits and individual artists to, well, make art. We started doing this back in 1985 (with a total in $295,000 of funding), and paid for it with a combination of General Fund and Redevelopment Agency money. The amount of the awards steadily increased over time, rising to a height of $1.6 million in 1992. During the mid-nineties, budget troubles whittled away funding, and the Redevelopment Agency stopped contributing to the program. For the last several years, grant funding has held relatively steady at a little over a million dollars per year.
So how does that break down? Well, this year we awarded 70 grants totaling $1.14 million (PDF). 20 of those were small grants (under $5,000) awarded to individual artists so they can do things like perform music at Mountain View Cemetery, play Greek Folk music, hand-sew dolls with terminally ill children, make movies, and photograph seniors exercising at the Y. Then 16 larger grants (up to $17,000) go to local non-profits for specific art projects. Stuff like a concert for 250 people at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the music program at Covenant House, the Prescott Circus, and the Chinatown Street Fest. Larger grants (up to $63,000) went to 21 non-profits for general support – these help fund organizations like the Oakland East Bay Symphony, the Friends of Peralta Hacienda Historical Park, MOCHA, and Oakland Leaf. Finally, we awarded 13 grants (up to $18,000) for projects at Oakland schools. Stuff like teaching kids African dance or to play traditional Chinese musical instruments or helping them write and perform short plays.
It all sounds great, right? Why on earth would anyone want to eliminate such a thing? Well, let’s take a second to remember how we got here. The City has to close a $42 million deficit, and they have to close it as soon as humanly possible, because every single day that goes by and we don’t do something about it, we’re spending money we literally don’t have, and the deficit gets bigger. Since there’s only $110 million in discretionary funds to work with, there is absolutely no way to do it that isn’t going to hurt. A lot.
When the Mayor finally submitted his budget proposal at the end of September, he used a combination of one-time fund transfers, parking ticket and meter fee increases, and elimination of vacant positions to close about three-quarters of the deficit. Oh yeah, and laying off 84 people. The budget included deep cuts to basic city services with massive reductions in staffing for libraries, parks and recreation, and public works. It meant we were going to have to do things like shut down community gardens, close parks, eliminate the Bookmobile, and end the City’s adult literacy program.
Now, even after doing all that, the Mayor’s proposal still wasn’t going to close the entire deficit. He left a final $10 million in cuts up to the Council, although he did supply a couple of options for doing it. His preferred plan would have slashed city services even further by closing the City every Friday (and cutting the pay of all City workers by 20%). If the Council didn’t want to do that, he suggested, we could slash services in a different way, by just laying off 120 extra people (remember, that’s on top of the 84 layoffs in the budget he submitted).
So…clearly, both options are unacceptable. Basic City services, already cut to the bone, have no room to be reduced any further. You might as well just dissolve the City at that point. So Councilmembers Jean Quan and Ignacio De La Fuente came up with an alternative plan for cutting the remaining $10 million that would stop some of the worst service cuts in Dellums’s budget (we’d get to keep the existing Park Rangers, we wouldn’t have to cut quite so much from our already decimated Animal Shelter, we’d get to keep one of the Oakland Museum positions slated to be cut, the Bookmobile would still operate, but at reduced service levels). They slashed mostly from the top (asking departments to eliminate administrative positions paying over $100,000 per year rather than direct service positions, ending management leave, professional development allowances, stuff like that). They cut their discretionary funds in half and their salaries by 5%. And for the most part, everybody seemed okay with it. Except, of course, for the part that involved suspending funding for the Cultural Arts grant program. (Oh, and people need to be clear about this. This is a suspension, not a deletion. The program would be gone for the rest of this fiscal year, but nobody is proposing to cut it permanently. )
Look, I love the arts. I really, really do. And I love arts subsidies. The greatest city in the history of the world became so half a century of its founding largely (in my opinion, anyway) because of the eagerness of its leaders to heavily subsidize intellectual and creative culture. Where there is a thriving culture of ideas and arts, commerce follows. (Also, it probably helped that they stuck a Port in the most well-positioned place for trade in the entire Mediterranean world, something that, for reasons I will never understand, apparently never occurred to anyone in the whole of Egypt over the course of multiple millennia. Anyway.) And if we had, not even lots of money, but, really, any money, I would be fulling supportive of giving lots and lots of grants to artists. But the fact is that we don’t.
People keep telling me things like “art is not a luxury.” And I agree. Art isn’t a luxury. But you know what else isn’t a luxury? Parks. Also, libraries. Also, streetlights. Abatement of nuisance properties. Sewer maintenance. Street repair. Fire services. And we have had to cut all of these services to barely functioning levels. In some cases, below barely functioning levels. They are all being decimated in this budget. So what’s left?
If people want to keep the Cultural Arts grant funding, they need to identify what they think can be cut even more to preserve it. This is a value judgment. Do you think that Covenant House Records is more important to Oakland than our public libraries? Is ProArts more important than our parks? I don’t. I’m comfortable saying that. And if you’re going to stand up and say that we can’t afford to suspend these grants, then you need to acknowledge that this is the choice you’re making. You need to be able to look in a mirror and say, “Yes, I think it’s more important to provide grants to the art community than it is to keep libraries open.” Because that’s what you’re asking the people of Oakland to give up.
Subsidy is hardly the only way to promote a thriving arts culture in a City – Oakland could do a great deal more to benefit artists as a community by relaxing nightlife and cabaret restrictions than by throwing money their way. So I hope the Council has the courage to hold firm tonight on the suspension of the program, in spite of whatever angry speakers might show up or angry e-mails they get, because it’s the moral thing to do. Hopefully, some of these organizations and programs will be able to find other ways to say afloat until we can restore funding, through private philanthropy, from the business community, with support from foundations, or whatever. Because you know what, at least there’s some money out there for stuff like this. I’m aware of no foundations that run around repairing sewers.