Los Angeles city officials have long used the "broken windows" theory to justify the $7 million spent each year on graffiti removal. The logic goes like this: Safe and prosperous communities start with clean streets.
But this week the fate of the effort was called into question when the top financial advisor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recommended that the city slash the graffiti-removal budget in half as part of a round of short-term cuts.
The graffiti-removal cut would last through the rest of the fiscal year and would save the city $1.5 million — a critical step in balancing the city budget, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana wrote in a report. Some City Council members have reacted with alarm, saying eradicating graffiti is both an economic and a safety imperative.
Spray-paint scares off potential investors, which keeps the tax base low, said Councilman Ed Reyes.
"We're taking away our ability to recover and create revenue," he said.
Reyes, whose district includes Boyle Heights, MacArthur Park and other neighborhoods with a history of gang violence, said he also worries about what more graffiti might mean in terms of crime, since gangs use it to communicate with one another.
"For gangs, essentially graffiti is like a message board for how they're going to hurt each other," he said.
"This is one of the few ways that we can penetrate that cycle of poverty and violence," he said of the removal program.
Reyes said he plans to fight the cuts when the council takes up the budget proposals next week.
So far, Santana's suggestion to cut back on the program has gotten little public support.
Villaraigosa called the proposed belt-tightening "way too much."
"Look, programs are going to take cuts," he said Thursday, the day after he got the report. "But you can't decimate a program as important as that."
The city has long paid to clean up graffiti. When he was a teenager in the 1970s, Reyes spent several summers painting over tags in Cypress Park as part of a summer youth program. But it wasn't until the late 1980s and early '90s, around the time that the "broken windows" theory gained popularity, that the city really began to spend money on removal.
These days the Department of Public Works contracts with 14 groups — all but one of them nonprofits — to cover more than 32 million square feet of graffiti scrawled on buildings, walls and overpasses.
The Central City Action Committee, an Angelino Heights-based organization that works with youth, sends six teams out to scour the streets each day.
Special scanners allow crews to record the exact color of the surface defaced by tags. The crews bring along a tinter that helps them mix the paint to match.
"We don't just paint over, we blend it," director Maryanne Hayashi said. "We don't just clean up, we restore the community."
Paul Racs, director of the city's Office of Community Beautification, which runs the graffiti removal program, called the proposed cut "shortsighted" and out of step with other city plans to curb graffiti. A new program involving the LAPD and the city attorney's office would give clean-up crews cameras to document graffiti to help prosecutors convict taggers. It's supposed to launch this month.
Last year, several council members proposed an ordinance that would prohibit the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans and other commonly used tagging materials to people under 21.
"On the one hand there's all these great ideas floating around," Racs said, "and then you have out of the blue these proposed cuts."
He said his program, which gets more than 90,000 requests for graffiti removal each year, is popular with residents.
Sharyn Romano, director of the Hollywood Beautification Team, a nonprofit contracted to clean up graffiti, said the removal helped pave the way for the gentrification of Hollywood in recent decades.
Her organization sprang out of a neighborhood watch group in the early 1990s. In 1995, it received its first city contract, and it now cleans 3 million square feet of walls each year.
"Cleaning is the most basic thing you do to bring back integrity to a neighborhood," she said.