No hefty price tag for ignoring S.F. graffiti
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
San Francisco officials have made graffiti cleanup a crusade over the past few years, pushing for the prosecution of vandals and fighting to hold private citizens accountable for tagging on their properties.
But a lack of money to pay city lawyers to go after the property owners has hobbled a much-touted anti-graffiti law, several members of the city's graffiti advisory board say.
The 2004 law requires property owners to remove graffiti from their property within 30 days of receiving a notice from the city or pay the Department of Public Works to paint over it. If the property owner fails to do so, the city attorney's office can get a court order that allows city workers to clean up the graffiti. The property owner is then billed for the cost, a minimum of $500.
Most property owners clean up the graffiti before it comes to that. But the approximately 500 per year that don't comply won't be getting a court order. The city attorney's office stopped pursuing those court orders last year when it became clear that the Department of Public Works didn't have the money to pay for the attorneys' time.
Civil litigation isn't cheap. It cost the city more than $200,000 in 2006 to pursue scofflaw property owners with graffiti problems. City attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey said the cases are a priority, but the office's hands are tied.
"The city attorney's office doesn't have discretionary funding to subsidize other city departments," said Dorsey. "Generally speaking we depend on departments to refer cases, but also to fund those cases. ... It's not a criticism, but at the end of the day, the enforcing agency has to decide whether it's cost-effective to call in lawyers."
There are now 171 cases past the 30-day mark, Public Works Deputy Director Mohammed Nuru told the advisory board last month. But Nuru also said that his department will not have money in next year's budget for the associated legal fees. The problems come as San Francisco heads into the 2008-2009 fiscal year facing a $251 million budget gap; the city already spends more than $20 million a year to clean up graffiti, according to city officials.
It's a real problem, said Doug Diboll, a member of the advisory committee, which is charged with recommending policy to the city. "The (departments) have been told not to spend any money, but the only way to get things done is to spend money."
Eric Dash, another advisory board member, said the city needs to figure out some way to enforce the law. Dash, who lives South of Market - a neighborhood often hit by taggers - said graffiti begets more graffiti. He has sent a letter to the mayor begging him to intercede.
"It's like dogs on a fire hydrant," he said. "For instance, there's a historical building (on 10th Street) that started with a little tag up top ... then after that there was another, and now there's a big one on the front."
That vandalism, he said, occurred in October 2007 and has yet to be removed.
Newsom has made graffiti and other quality-of-life crimes a priority. Last year, he began creating a community court to deal with scofflaws who tag, urinate in public or aggressively panhandle. In 2006, he put more money into the public works budget so the agency could take the lead in painting over graffiti on all city properties.
And just last month, Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris announced a program that provides $250 rewards to people who furnish information leading to the arrest and conviction of taggers. The money is being taken from fines levied against graffiti vandals who are caught.
"Our message to taggers is clear," the mayor said in a statement announcing the program. "We do not tolerate graffiti vandalism in San Francisco. Your tag will not stay up."
Public works spokeswoman Gloria Chan noted that the city has a very high compliance rate when it comes to private property owners who have been cited. Seventy percent of the approximately 5,000 owners cited per year clean up the graffiti immediately, she said, and another 20 percent abate the tagging after a second notice.
Chan and Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for the mayor's office, said graffiti abatement will continue to be a priority. The mayor will step in, Ballard added, if the city departments ask him to.
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