"Over 200 jobs will disappear if this ship sinks," says Rob Chappell, spokesman for the Overture Center. And yet jobs are the chief concern of opponents of the plan that Chappell and Mayor Dave Cieslewicz support, which would allow the city to assume ownership of the building and for it to hire a non-profit to run the performance center and its events, largely financed through private fundraising.
A source close to the negotiations has indicated there to be 6 to 7 votes in favor, with a handful of more votes on the fence. The only two "definite nays," are Alds. Jed Sanborn and Tim Bruer. 11 votes are needed for the plan to pass.
Skeptics of the plan believe the "focus model," will harm Overture employees, almost all of whom are currently employed by the city. Ald. Mike Verveer, who sits on the Madison Cultural Arts District board, which was charged with reviewing the plan, worries that city employees will be kicked out of the public pension system. For that reason, he will not support the focus model as it stands.
Perhaps the only way to guarantee that Overture employees remain in the city system would be for the city to assume entire control, and for the Overture to become a city agency. "The public-public model," is the unnecessary label used to describe such a scenario.
The downside to the public-public model, Verveer explains, is that donors may be less likely to give to an institution whose future is assured by the government.
But ironically, some type of government assistance may be necessary to leverage the level of contributions the Overture needs. "People do not like giving money for debt," says Chappell, referring to the $28 million of red ink that threatens the center's existence.
The focus model would establish a committee to oversee the center that would concentrate on eliciting contributions from wealthy philanthropists and donors. The committee itself would be composed largely of wealthy donors, such as Deidre Garton, who currently sits on MCAD and sees the Overture's future as dependent on the financial largess of the city's rich. In a phone interview, Garton explained the benefits of privatizing the center's workforce. "We have to be in a flexible situation to respond to the market and have the ability to control and not be hampered by city rules," she said.
Chappell emphasizes that public sector unions have nothing to fear in the face of a partial privatization. "Everybody represented by a union now would still be represented by a union," he explains.
And Chappell's comment highlights the likely compromise that alders such as Verveer may be exploring: Protecting city benefits for union-represented employees and privatizing those not represented by AFSCME Local 60 or IATSE Local 251. "In the spirit of compromise," Verveer indicates he may accept such a deal. Although the unions have indicated opposition to privatization, it remains to be seen how hard they will fight against the privatization of workers they don't represent.
It is a scene that is replayed over and over again in negotiations between governments and public workers, and more often than not, the non-union workers bear the brunt of the concessions.