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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Graffiti artists seize opportunity in Watsonville, the Beach Flats Community Center decides to go nonprofit and Santa Cruz pro-choice advocates celebrate 36 years of reproductive freedom.

The Graffiti Guy

According to Watsonville police, the city's two-week employee furlough basically went off without a hitch. But when picking out who was "nonessential," the city axed one very specific job--that of Rex Rackley, the city maintenance worker whose sole responsibility is to clean up graffiti.

Every day from 7am till 3:30pm, Rackley drives his truck from site to site, painting over, water blasting or chemically dissolving tags from electrical boxes, garbage cans, vacant businesses, you name it. Rackley keeps about 100 different colors in his truck. After seven years, he has quite an eye for color matching--although the city tries to streamline the process by painting as many things as possible a color called "loam brown."

Rackley's routine changed last month when he became one of 390 city employees temporarily laid off in order to keep a looming $1.9 million deficit at bay. For Rackley, his unpaid vacation meant watching certain parts of the city bloom with overlapping tags. "There were tags popping up all over the place," he says. "That was a given. We knew that was going to happen."

He's still working through the 100 work orders he had before the furlough, and he hasn't even been able to tally the number that accumulated while he was gone. "I get farther and farther behind," he says. "I'm always playing catch-up."

Last week, when the Watsonville PD presented a report to the City Council on graffiti arrests and prosecutions, the figure it used for the cost of cleanup to the city--$150,000--was the total of Rackley's wages, the gas for his truck and his supplies. "That is such a low estimate. It's probably twice that," Rackley says, adding that the tally did not take into account the hours worked by responding police officers or the secretaries who push the requests through to him.

Councilmen Manuel Bersamin and Luis Alejo both mentioned the increase in graffiti in their districts, especially during the furlough. But Alejo adds that it's not as if taggers knew the furlough was the perfect time to hit the streets; rather, it's evidence of a persistent, citywide problem. "It's ongoing," he says. "The last several months, more and more you see an increased problem." The purpose of the presentation by the police, says Alejo, was to get the ball rolling on better solutions for punishing the taggers and preventing graffiti.

Rackley agrees that during his tenure, the problem has gotten worse. He says it's hard not to get frustrated, especially since he says he's painted over some of the same spots more than 100 times. He says things get especially hairy when locals see him cleaning and start angrily pointing out other tags around them. "Gosh, you can't even leave, almost," he says. "I'm only one person."

A Neighborhood Empowered

Last month, when residents in Beach Flats heard the city was looking to cut funding to the Beach Flats Community Center, it seemed only natural that they would organize a march involving more than 200 people to cram City Hall with supporters and demand that the center be saved. But there's a big difference between demanding action and finding solutions.

That community proved it could do both last week with the announcement that the Walnut Avenue Women's Center, the Boys & Girls Club, Bridges to Kinder preschool program and several other organizations would be stepping up to keep the center doing what it does best: supporting families.

With a final contract still in the works, the BFCC will no longer be a city entity but rather part of the Walnut Avenue Women's Center, a privately owned nonprofit organization. While BFCC may lose some of the surefire media attention afforded to tax-supported programs, it will gain several nonprofit veteran workers to run the books and coveted 501(c)(3) tax status.

"This center is really weaved into the fabric of the community," says BFCC community liaison Reyna Ruiz. "And the community really stepped up and showed that they value what we do and believe we need to keep going."

Along with the Surfing Museum, Museum of Natural History, Harvey West Pool and Teen Center, the Beach Flats Community Center looked to be doomed with Santa Cruz $7 million in the red. But at the Jan. 13 City Council meeting, Dannette Shoemaker, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, announced all five community centers would be spared for at least six more months, thanks mostly to private citizens and nonprofits.

For a family who walks through the BFCC doors over the next six months, it will be like nothing has changed. The same staff members who have made the center a success over its 15-year lifetime will still be behind the front desk. That's exactly what Jenn O'Brien-Rojo, Resource Development director at WAWC, says she was aiming for when her organization stepped up to permanently absorb and keep it afloat.

"When I found out that the center might be closed, it sent me into kind of a panic," she says. "We have always shared a lot of families [with the BFCC], and all I could think was that that center has to be there."

It will be through the efforts of nine organizations like the Sunrise Rotary, Familia Center, Mercy Housing and Community Bridges that the BFCC will keep operating. The WAWC will handle payroll, human resources and administrative support, while the Bridges to Kinder preschool program will be in charge of raising money to pay the center's few employees. The Boys & Girls Club will support a 15-hour-per-week position to run the center's after-school program.

Beach Flats residents are no strangers to challenges or to overcoming them. Last March, when told there was no money to keep the center's 2-acre community garden open, it only took one rowdy meeting to round up the needed volunteers to keep it going.

But while the next six months may be paved for the BFCC, a more long-term financial support structure is needed. Ruiz says the center needs to come up with $122,000 this fiscal year and each year after.

"We're still fundraising in crisis mode," she says. "We are very thankful for the support we've received. They've given us hope and time to think. But we're not completely saved yet."

Cheers to Abortion Rights

For eight years the Bush administration has treated the Supreme Court judgment of Roe v. Wade more like a silly suggestion than a clear legal precedent. There's a new sheriff in town now, however, and on the 36th anniversary of that landmark court decision, local pro-choice groups are throwing a shindig to celebrate a new president and a new era of respect for a woman's right to choose.

Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California CEO Kathy Kneer will headline this "pro-choice brunch" Jan. 24 at the United Methodist Church with a lecture titled "Choice Victories--Choice Challenges." Kneer caught up with Nu_z ahead of the event, calling Santa Cruz "a special place that does allow progressive politics to grow and flourish" but also reminding that while several battles have been won, the war is far from over.

"The anti-choice movement is still there," she says. "Just because they lost Prop. 4 and the presidency doesn't mean they'll be going away. In fact, they'll be even busier. We've got to stay active."

The defeat of Prop. 4, which would have forced pregnant minors to notify parents before having an abortion, marked the third time California voters have shot down similar proposals.

"The underlying word for reproductive rights is 'eternal vigilance,'" says Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Mathews, founder of the Santa Cruz County chapter of Planned Parenthood. "It's a year to celebrate, but we know there will be other traps. Bush made some horrible appointments to the Supreme Court that will unfortunately long outlast him."

For now, both Matthews and Kneer say the upcoming finalized state budget will be their most closely watched front. But for pro-choice activists who have suddenly found themselves without a common enemy to fight, Kneer says they can start with the local schools.

"We want accurate sex ed curriculums taught in every school," says Kneer. "One thing people can do is look at their school's curriculum and make sure that they are using accurate, updated material. This is something that anyone can get involved with."

PRO-CHOICE BRUNCH kicks off Saturday, Jan. 24, at 10am at United Methodist Church, 250 California St., Santa Cruz; 831.423.2356. A donation of $10-$25 is suggested, but students are invited free of charge.

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