Growing graffiti problem irks city officials

Posted: Friday, October 16, 2009

The Juneau Parks and Recreation department is seeing an increase of graffiti and vandalism at its facilities recently and is growing increasingly tired of spending thousands of taxpayers' dollars to clean up the messes.

Lt. Ed Mercer and Sgt. Tom Bates of the Juneau Police Department met with the parks advisory committee on Tuesday night to discuss the growing problem.

"A lot of parks property has been vandalized (recently)," Bates said. "Last year there was a lot of vandalism at businesses downtown and it seems to kind of shifted to the parks and other areas."

The parks department alone has incurred $126,000 worth of damage from vandalism in the past five fiscal years, facilities maintenance superintendent Brent Fisher said. That figure includes the cost of labor for cleaning up graffiti, replacing vandalized doors, windows and light fixtures, and rebuilding structures destroyed by arson, he said.

There has been $21,600 worth of damage so far this year fiscal year, which began in July, and the figure continues to grow, Fisher said.

"I could be doing far better things than doing repairs like these," he said.

The parks department and has seen more graffiti one-third of the way into this fiscal year than it did in all of the previous year. Many people might not be aware of the increase, because the city has worked to clean it up quickly by following a "two-hour rule," said department Director Marc Matsil.

"From time of notification, we get it cleaned up within a two hour period, with the notion you tire them out," Matsil said.

The police are not sure if there are a few prolific graffiti artists or multiple groups responsible.

Arson, although relatively uncommon at the park facilities, has been the most expensive element of park property destruction for the department over the past five years, Fisher said, costing more than $80,000.

On July 3, the electrical blockhouse building at Dimond Park was burned to the ground, costing at least $17,000. That figure is expected to grow, Fisher said.

A privately owned concession stand was set on fire at Melvin Park in 2007, which spread to a city restroom that cost taxpayers nearly $49,000 to replace. In 2005, a trash can fire in a men's restroom at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Park cost nearly $16,000 to fix.

The police department has a pretty low prosecution rate of vandals because they generally have to be caught in the act, Mercer said.

"We prioritize our crimes. Obviously people crimes come first and we have to deal with that first, property crimes come second," he said. "That's how we respond to calls for service."

One of the problems the department faces is the city does not have a graffiti ordinance on the books so the crime falls under the criminal mischief umbrella. It can be difficult to create a solid case for prosecution because of the burden of proof, Lt. Mercer said.

But even if the Assembly adopted an ordinance, it would still take citizens to be vigilant in order to cut down the volume of graffiti and vandalism in the community, he said.

"We can't fix this by ourselves," Mercer said. "We need community involvement."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or ric.morrison@juneauempire.com.



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