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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Safe For Now: Dan Driessche is counting his blessings. He'll keep his custodial job at Louden Nelson Center in the midst of deep cuts to the Santa Cruz Parks and Rec budget.

Solidarity in City Hall

Even employees who are spared the sword feel the pain from sweeping cuts to Santa Cruz's budget.

By Curtis Cartier

Dan Driessche is one of the lucky ones. He'll be keeping his part-time custodial job at the Louden Nelson Community Center. With his constant smile, the 56-year-old will still be sweeping the floors and taking out the trash for $12 per hour come next year. But nearly 30 other city staffers will likely be gone by February as, one by one, the museums, pool and community centers where they work are shuttered.

Like an itemized obituary, the city's Budget Balancing Plan, partially approved at the Nov. 25 City Council meeting and scheduled for final approval on Dec. 9 after presstime, ticks off line after line of community programs and social niceties that will be eliminated so the city can dig itself out of a $7 million hole. Harvey West Pool, Beach Flats Community Center, the Surfing Museum and the Museum of Natural History will all be closed, their employees laid off. Drastic cuts to Parks and Recreation, police and public works staffs will be handed down. And sweeping cuts to hours across all departments, as well as the freezing of merit increases for nearly every one of the city's 800 employees, await those who are spared a pink slip.

For Driessche, keeping a job while colleagues left and right are let go is a bittersweet experience.

"It's extremely depressing," he says, his smile suddenly vanishing. "Yeah, I'll keep my job. But we'll be going at such a bare-bones level that I won't get to give back the way I wanted to when I first started. Now it'll just be work. But in these times, I'll take it."

In reality the city has been cutting services since 2002, the latest being "phase 9" of an ongoing attempt to address a budget deficit that started with the high tech meltdown of 2001. Staff levels and program funding have dropped consistently each year. But these cuts, as highlighted by the City Council's most recent report, are emergency actions at a level that "was unimaginable just a few months ago," according to the report.

For City Manager Dick Wilson, there has been no way to sugar coat this bitter pill. He, like supervisors in nearly every city department, has had to look employees in the eyes--employees he values and respects--and tell them they no longer have jobs. And while terminating employees is an unavoidable responsibility of managers everywhere, the dismal job market makes the job even more painful.

"Normally you're releasing people into a normal economy. But this is not at all a normal economy," says Wilson. "These are emergency measures that reflect the urgency of the city's position. They don't reflect careful long-term weighing of values, they only reflect an emergency response to not having the money to spend. It's a backwards way of doing things and it's really sad."

Things are at their worst at the Parks and Recreation Department office on Church Street. There, those fortunate enough to be keeping their jobs held back tears one day last week as they described friends, some of whom have worked for the department for decades, who were getting the ax. But even more than the unemployed workers whose families will now have to cope with sudden cuts to their income, the loss of their respective services may be what wounds Santa Cruz most deeply.

"I mean, there are kids who won't learn how to swim now," says Parks and Recreation Department Director Dannette Shoemaker. "It's little things like that that are devastating. There have been a lot of tears around here the last few days. We have an incredible staff and even the ones who've lost their jobs are concerned about the people who use their services just as much as their own jobs."

As Driessche finishes rebagging the trash cans, several other Louden Nelson employees file past and remark about their luck in keeping a job. "Still here, Dan?

"One woman asks while taking a load of dishes to the sink for cleaning.

"For now, at least," he replies.

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