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Cost of Graffiti Removal Eating Up City Budgets : Vandalism: Rising gang activity is blamed for much of the increase in spray-paint damage, but some city officials accuse 'wanna-bes'.

June 09, 1990|JANE HULSE

Graffiti, which can be the signature of gang members, is costing cities and other agencies in Ventura County a bundle to remove, and some officials say it's only getting worse.

This year, the tab for graffiti removal in Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Oxnard is expected to run about $275,000. Smaller cities are straining to absorb the cost in their maintenance budgets.

Public agencies also are getting socked with removal costs. South Coast Area Transit budgets $30,000 a year to rid its 28 buses of the spray-paint, and officials there say the problem is growing.

In Oxnard, graffiti has escalated so much that by mid-May the city had used up $75,000, the amount that was earmarked for removal until the end of June, said Robert Frederick, the city's street superintendent.

"We had a contractor working every day, five days a week," Frederick said. "We were caught up in March, and then all of a sudden, it got way out of hand."

By May 1, at least 900 sites on public property had been cleaned, he said. But the city can't keep up with the growing problem. There is now a four-week backlog of sites awaiting cleanup.

That's discouraging to police, who say graffiti should be removed quickly--within 24 hours if possible. While many people who spray-paint on walls are not associated with gangs, graffiti is a vital tool to gang members, who use it to establish their territory.

Police say one way to disrupt gang activity is to remove the markings or cover them up.

"Graffiti feeds itself," said David Keith, senior crime analyst for the Oxnard Police Department. "The more kids see it, the more they get the idea to do it. If it's up a couple of weeks, it snowballs."

Gang violence in Ventura County has escalated in the past two years, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Vincent J. O'Neill Jr., co-chairman of a countywide task force on gangs. Shootings have risen, he said, and last November a gang-related homicide occurred near Channel Islands High School in Oxnard.

Ventura County's gang problems, though serious, aren't the menace that plagues Los Angeles, police say. Nor is the graffiti as troublesome here. The city of Los Angeles spends $2.7 million a year to get rid of graffiti, while the Rapid Transit District (RTD) spends another $10 million a year to keep its 2,795 buses graffiti-free.

"A large percentage of the graffiti in Oxnard is put on by 'wanna-bes,' " Keith said. "They see it, or hear about it through the media, and think it's cool to do it."

To keep the problem from becoming epidemic, some cities, such as Ventura, have set up elaborate anti-graffiti programs. Ventura has a graffiti hot line for callers to report sightings. Three days a week a crew drives around the city to scout out new graffiti.

Usually the paint is removed within 24 hours, said Mike Solomon, the city's budget coordinator. But the price is high. In previous years, the city budgeted $50,000 for graffiti removal on city property. City officials added another $100,000 this year to tackle the problem on private property.

"It's either that or let the gangs take over the streets," Solomon said. "Then you need more police protection."

Oxnard and Ventura pay private contractors for the work. In an average month, the number of spray-painted sites can run from 80 to 100. About 75% to 80% of it is gang-related, he said.

"We've had them challenge us," said Solomon. "We remove it, they put it back up, three or four times. If we have to, we go back."

When Ventura beefed up its program this year, the graffiti dropped off, he said, but in the last month it's picked up again, possibly as the result of the longer daylight hours. During the summer, Solomon and other city officials said they expect the problem to get worse.

City officials in Thousand Oaks are seeing an increase in graffiti.

"We have two guys who are on it virtually full time," said John Clement, the city's director of public works. The city spends about $50,000 a year from its maintenance budget to remove graffiti, much of it on walls of housing tracts.

"It's all pseudo-gang," Clement said. "We have some small-town hoodlums."

Police say it's tough to catch the graffiti artists, who are often youths on bicycles who can do extensive damage in less than a minute and then be gone.

But police are starting to beat the spray-painters at their own game. If the graffiti is gang-related, youths usually sign their gang's name, their own nicknames and those of other members, as well as other identifying symbols.

The nicknames sometimes relate to a physical characteristic, such as "Slick," for someone with slicked-back hair, or "Thumper," for someone who hits others, said Rod Mendoza, senior crime prevention officer for the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in Camarillo. Some prefer more masculine names such as "Playboy" or "Macho Man."

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