Don't Paint the Town Red

The city shakes up its graffiti program as the problem continues to increase

Officials say summertime is prime time for wayward youngsters to break out the spray paint and scribble on everything from stop signs to backyard walls.

The annual upsurge in graffiti probably has its roots in the fact that many kids are absolved of school responsibilities, said Eliseo Garza Jr., director of the Tucson Department of Neighborhood Resources. But even without the summertime spike, graffiti is a problem that appears to be getting worse--at least anecdotally.

"I think overall, it's probably grown some," Garza said. "I see it on my way around town in places where I haven't seen it before. Maybe it's just that I notice those things more now."

To deal with the blight, both the city and county are revamping their anti-graffiti strategies during the height of the summer graffiti season.

After about a decade working with the city, the nonprofit Graffiti Abatement Program in Tucson, or GAPIT, will cease its services on Monday, June 26, according to Garza.

"We have been looking at the whole issue of graffiti in Tucson, and we had a group of city employees, a little committee, do best-practices research of programs throughout the country," he said. Programs in Phoenix, California and Fort Worth, Texas, were scrutinized closely.

"We realized that what we needed to do in Tucson was become more holistic in our approach to the graffiti problem," Garza said. The city plans to restructure and assume more control of abatement so "we can have more accountability and have more statistical analysis," as well as ramp up both outreach and enforcement efforts. Task forces will be formed in these three areas next month.

Right now, Garza said, GAPIT only provides basic service logs of where they've been and what they've done when called to remove graffiti. Without more detailed statistics, he claimed he couldn't say exactly how bad the problem has gotten, or even confirm if it's gotten worse.

Garza also noted the GAPIT hotline was somewhat impersonal.

"One of the problems we've had is that GAPIT would not talk to people--they had a recorder that would take the calls as they came in," Garza said. A living, breathing hotline operator, whom the city intends to hire in the coming months, would be better able to take information, map incidents and improve service, he projected.

After a half-dozen unanswered calls over several days, a representative at GAPIT refused to comment pending a press release that was postponed once, and was still unavailable as of press time.

Once a week, Stephen Cowell and another volunteer bicycle the streets of the westside Keeling Neighborhood to remove graffiti early in the morning. He said he feels they have the problem under control in his neck of the woods, and that GAPIT has been instrumental in getting a handle on things: "They're underfunded, and they don't have as many resources as they should, but they've been very helpful."

Cowell seemed shocked when he was told the nonprofit was closing down.

"I had no idea," he said. "That's really disturbing. So what's going to happen? There has to be some program for removing graffiti, or is this town going to turn into a big paint can?"

According to Cowell, a large percentage of graffiti in his neighborhood is removed using a chemical provided by GAPIT. Still, Cowell called the Weekly back a short time later to express confidence in the city.

"The city has been pretty helpful," he said. "They have been providing us with lots of support, as well as GAPIT. As long as you contact them, and you're willing to get involved, they've been very helpful."

Garza said bids for a new abatement contractor will open Friday, June 23, with the approximately $250,000 deal to be awarded by August. (The city will again allot $280,000 to graffiti abatement for the funding year that starts at the beginning of July, with the new hotline operator to be paid using some of that money.)

Between June 26 and August, Tucsonans can get help with abatement by calling 792-CITY.

On the outreach front, Garza said, the city has started working with utilities and schools as part of an education program to prevent graffiti before it starts. They'll be putting together literature and presentations for schoolchildren.

As for enforcement, Garza said the city will work with police to address the hardest-hit areas and keep spray paint out of the hands of minors. Police department personnel will sit on all three anti-graffiti task forces, he said.

Meanwhile, the Pima County Sheriff's Department has assigned a special unit to patrol county parks that are graffiti and vandalism hotspots. Deputies have been on the job for about a month now, and Sherrie Barfield, parks manager for Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation, said they've noticed fewer incidents in the hardest-hit of the 77 metropolitan parks, recreation centers and pools they maintain.

"The majority of those are in the northwestern area of Tucson, followed by the Rillito River Park and Santa Cruz River Park," she said.

Barfield described the graffiti problem as a "constant" concern that's visible in almost all parks and has cost the county $28,970 to remove so far this year.

According to Barfield, the idea of hiring private security guards to shut gates and act as a deterrent has been floated, but whether that would be enough to make a dent in the graffiti problem is anyone's guess. It often seems as if county employees are fighting a losing battle against cans of spray paint and other implements that have fallen into the wrong hands.

"These guys clean it up in the morning," she said, "and it's been replaced even before they get home."

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