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Graffiti Remains Thorn in Side for DPW


In July, Asheville launched a program to deal with the pervasive problem. Leadership felt the graffiti was bringing down the tone of the community and inviting more crime. They said it sent a “we don’t care” message to young punks.

One of the three prongs of the program was to get tough on the victims. According to theory, taggers are less likely to tag an area once their artwork has been removed. The city decided to give affected property owners a one-week notice to clean up the messes. If they did not comply, they would be issued a notice of violation. The ordinance passed by council authorized city workers to then trespass to remove the graffiti and slap the owners with the bill.

Since this was a bit draconian, it was determined that a 90-day grace period was in order. A second prong of the program set aside a bucket of funding, donated by an anonymous party. With the funds, the city would clean up tags and cover the first $500 of the cost. The third prong turned the act of vandalism into a misdemeanor with an escalating scale of criminal fines, beginning at $200 for the first offense.

Director of Public Works Greg Shuler, who in many ways is wise beyond his years, told council last Tuesday that the problem had him stumped. At the time, the city had spent $54,000, which amounted to 17 percent of available funds, removing 198 tags. 90 more tags were in the city’s TBD inventory. Since the response to the city’s offer to help clean up had not been nearly as high as expected, Shuler presented council with two options.

Staff could extend the grace period for another year or until funds run out, or the city could have a blitz and remove all graffiti, all at taxpayer expense. The advantage to the second option is that it took a long time for some of the huge graffiti walls to get to their current state. It might take $15,000 each to clean the huge displays, but the next tag, in isolation, would be small beans.

It was estimated the city would spend $210,350 following the latter course. That included the $159,950 already spent. It was estimated extending the current program would only cost the city about $130,000. Council informally agreed to stay the course. No motion was needed.

Shuler also followed through on a request generated by Councilman Jan Davis at the last meeting. Councilman Cecil Bothwell had suggested maybe some of the owners of property with large displays of graffiti were leaving it up because they wanted it there. Already knowing the answer, but not wanting to get into an argument, Davis asked staff to fact-check with the property owners.

Shuler reported there were seven properties in the city with graffiti that would cost more than $5000 to remove. Most of the owners said they did not clean it because they expected the areas would just be defaced again. All said they had cleaned the affected area at least once before. In other words, the owners were victims; the gallery space had been donated contrary to their wishes.

Of course cost was a factor. Most of the seven parties with whom Shuler spoke said they couldn’t afford to remove it. Some of these indicated they would pay a little if the city would pay for the rest, but Shuler suspected some might change their minds when it got down to negotiations. The others said they could afford to remove the graffiti, but they did not deem that a good investment of their earnings. Both Bothwell and Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked if Shuler had shared with the property owners the theory about buildings not being retagged after the second removal.

To this, Shuler admitted to showing council four exhibits wherein twice-cleaned walls had remained untagged. “I can’t say that anymore,” he told council.

On another law enforcement issue, Jonathan Robert approached council during public comment again to lodge complaints against Police Chief William Anderson. Certain media outlets have put a target on the chief’s head. For whatever reason, reporters are conducting investigations, and stories are surfacing about uncalibrated radar guns, more evidence room problems, and complaints about the chief from other jurisdictions in which he has served.

Robert wished to focus on staff turnover. He said the department was rapidly burning through its overtime budget to cover for the department’s high attrition rate. He took a shot at commentary expressed earlier that night by the assistant city manager, who alleged high turnover in the department was due to the economy improving. Robert said many officers were leaving to take lower-paying jobs across the street with the county. According to his inside source, the exodus was for better working conditions.

Robert said he suspected “severe mismanagement,” and rhetorically asked members of council if they even knew how to Google. He had been able to find online complaints about the chief’s performance in his last two jurisdictions. In Greenville, NC, a citizen petition had circulated asking for Anderson’s removal on the grounds of officer mistreatment and mishandling of government funds. One issue was that he had altered a police report at the request of a member of city council. Altered documents also figured into the mysterious car accident in Asheville that involved the chief’s son. After his three minutes for public comment were over, Robert summarized that he thought the chief might be in his post for equal-opportunity reasons more than anything else.

Disclaimer: High-ranking law enforcement personnel are frequently the target of allegations. Of course, the public wants those who enforce the law to be squeaky-clean and free from corruption, but criminals also don’t like guys who get tough on the turf they claim. This article makes no pretense of investigating the above claims.

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