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Handwriting on the wall for city’s anti-graffiti bid

Audit blasts weakened enforcement, watered-down vendor contract

To outsource or not to outsource seems to be the question for new GOP mayor Kevin Faulconer, generally a privatization proponent, in the wake of a report by the city auditor's office on failures in the city's graffiti-control program.

According to the March 5 audit report:

The City of San Diego’s Graffiti Control Program, which encompasses graffiti abatement, law enforcement, and community outreach efforts, has undergone significant downsizing and restructuring in recent years.

To address these issues, we recommend that the City centralize responsibility for graffiti abatement report intake, routing, and field abatement in the Street Division.

While this may include the use of a third-party vendor to provide field abatement services, the City has never formally studied whether graffiti abatement in the field can be most efficiently and effectively performed by a vendor or City crews.

The report goes on to suggest that taxpayers may not be getting their money's worth from its current outsourcing deal.

The City’s oversight and management of the graffiti abatement vendor’s contract is limited, and the City cannot ensure that the vendor is fulfilling performance obligations or reporting accurate performance statistics.

We recommend that the City enhance contract oversight and management to guarantee vendor performance.

According to the audit, the anti-graffiti contractor, Urban Corps, "is only required to provide monthly totals of graffiti abatement work completed by source of complaint and property type. These reports contain only aggregate numbers, and do not contain information about individual work orders completed, which makes it impossible to determine response times."

"Furthermore, we found that the graffiti abatement totals reported by Urban Corps...were consistently higher than the totals reflected in the log forms."

Graffiti incidence map

Threatening to make matters worse, the auditors say, is a new contract being negotiated with Urban Corps that waters down city oversight even more.

The City’s 2006 contract with Urban Corps contained quantifiable performance measures, including a requirement for the vendor to remove graffiti within three working days after receiving a service request, and to remove any obscene, racist, or extremely threatening graffiti within 24 hours.

However, the City is in the process of finalizing a new contract with Urban Corps that eliminates these performance standards, and only states that graffiti removal should be completed “in a timely and efficient manner.”

In addition, several other requirements from the 2006 contract have been eliminated in the new contract. Specifically, while the 2006 contract required Urban Corps to maintain a 24/7 reporting hotline that is staffed by a live operator from noon to 4pm, Monday through Friday, the new contract does not require the hotline to be staffed.

Those aren’t the only problems, the auditors assert, saying, "The City dedicates fewer resources to graffiti control efforts in comparison to other jurisdictions. As a result, the City may not be able to employ adequate outreach efforts or abate graffiti as quickly as possible."

Since FY 2008, budgeted expenses for graffiti control have declined by nearly 50 percent, and staffing has declined by approximately 40 percent during that time.

Other jurisdictions tend to allocate significantly more resources per capita to graffiti control than the City of San Diego — with San Francisco and Riverside spending approximately seven times as much.

Given that the City’s goal is to abate graffiti to avoid its detrimental impact and to prevent more graffiti from appearing, the City may need to consider bolstering the resources it provides for graffiti control.

"We found that in many cases customers reporting graffiti over the phone cannot speak to a live operator," the auditors say, adding that callers to a "graffiti hotline listen to a lengthy message before leaving a voicemail with their complaint information."

In a March 4 memo to city auditor Eduardo Luna, Tony Heinrichs, the city's deputy chief operating officer for Infrastructure/Public Works generally agreed with the auditors' findings, mapping out an eight-month to two-year timeline for action to address the many problems cited by the report.

"Final recommendations may vary depending on the results of the Graffiti Study, Graffiti Pilot Program and recommendations and proposal presented by the Graffiti Task Force."

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To outsource or not to outsource seems to be the question for new GOP mayor Kevin Faulconer, generally a privatization proponent, in the wake of a report by the city auditor's office on failures in the city's graffiti-control program.

According to the March 5 audit report:

The City of San Diego’s Graffiti Control Program, which encompasses graffiti abatement, law enforcement, and community outreach efforts, has undergone significant downsizing and restructuring in recent years.

To address these issues, we recommend that the City centralize responsibility for graffiti abatement report intake, routing, and field abatement in the Street Division.

While this may include the use of a third-party vendor to provide field abatement services, the City has never formally studied whether graffiti abatement in the field can be most efficiently and effectively performed by a vendor or City crews.

The report goes on to suggest that taxpayers may not be getting their money's worth from its current outsourcing deal.

The City’s oversight and management of the graffiti abatement vendor’s contract is limited, and the City cannot ensure that the vendor is fulfilling performance obligations or reporting accurate performance statistics.

We recommend that the City enhance contract oversight and management to guarantee vendor performance.

According to the audit, the anti-graffiti contractor, Urban Corps, "is only required to provide monthly totals of graffiti abatement work completed by source of complaint and property type. These reports contain only aggregate numbers, and do not contain information about individual work orders completed, which makes it impossible to determine response times."

"Furthermore, we found that the graffiti abatement totals reported by Urban Corps...were consistently higher than the totals reflected in the log forms."

Graffiti incidence map

Threatening to make matters worse, the auditors say, is a new contract being negotiated with Urban Corps that waters down city oversight even more.

The City’s 2006 contract with Urban Corps contained quantifiable performance measures, including a requirement for the vendor to remove graffiti within three working days after receiving a service request, and to remove any obscene, racist, or extremely threatening graffiti within 24 hours.

However, the City is in the process of finalizing a new contract with Urban Corps that eliminates these performance standards, and only states that graffiti removal should be completed “in a timely and efficient manner.”

In addition, several other requirements from the 2006 contract have been eliminated in the new contract. Specifically, while the 2006 contract required Urban Corps to maintain a 24/7 reporting hotline that is staffed by a live operator from noon to 4pm, Monday through Friday, the new contract does not require the hotline to be staffed.

Those aren’t the only problems, the auditors assert, saying, "The City dedicates fewer resources to graffiti control efforts in comparison to other jurisdictions. As a result, the City may not be able to employ adequate outreach efforts or abate graffiti as quickly as possible."

Since FY 2008, budgeted expenses for graffiti control have declined by nearly 50 percent, and staffing has declined by approximately 40 percent during that time.

Other jurisdictions tend to allocate significantly more resources per capita to graffiti control than the City of San Diego — with San Francisco and Riverside spending approximately seven times as much.

Given that the City’s goal is to abate graffiti to avoid its detrimental impact and to prevent more graffiti from appearing, the City may need to consider bolstering the resources it provides for graffiti control.

"We found that in many cases customers reporting graffiti over the phone cannot speak to a live operator," the auditors say, adding that callers to a "graffiti hotline listen to a lengthy message before leaving a voicemail with their complaint information."

In a March 4 memo to city auditor Eduardo Luna, Tony Heinrichs, the city's deputy chief operating officer for Infrastructure/Public Works generally agreed with the auditors' findings, mapping out an eight-month to two-year timeline for action to address the many problems cited by the report.

"Final recommendations may vary depending on the results of the Graffiti Study, Graffiti Pilot Program and recommendations and proposal presented by the Graffiti Task Force."

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Comments
14

Does the audit name the included neighborhoods in the city's UC service contract? The city should be contracting for service for all neighborhoods, because the money paid to UC comes from the revenue pool from all taxpayers.

UC has additional privatized-service contracts with business associations that control assessment district funds throughout the city. This means that people subject to property assessments via MADs or PBIDs (e.g., downtown, Little Italy, North Park, Barrio Logan, City Heights, to name just a few) are paying taxes in two ways for graffiti abatement.

The city and the assessment-district managing BAs try to hide this. People within assessment districts are told to report graffiti to their MAD or PBID management (who then relay the report to the UC). If you live in an assessment district and call UC directly, I suspect they still log/charge the response to the assessment district contract.

I think the problem with this is pretty obvious. Is the city's "all-neighborhood" contract really only with UC for neighborhoods not paying into an assessment district?

March 7, 2014

The Urban Corps knows how to keep graffiti off their mostly blank monthly billings, usually a one-liner. The city can easily solve this problem by requiring all contract billings to list number of hours worked and totals by labor category, and number of projects completed. It's not just the Urban Corps. How many of those hours go to teenagers the Urban Corps hires, how many to full-time labor, and how much to management? What are the costs per hour in each category? Not something the people who are paying for it (all of us) will ever know.

March 7, 2014

If you live/work in North Park, you don't have to call UC to report graffiti. Instead you can email to [email protected] Include the exact location (street address or intersection) of the tagging, and a photo helps (cellphone pic OK).

March 7, 2014

Too bad this set-up isn't for the entire city.

March 7, 2014

You're right. In North Park, it's a volunteer effort--part of the North Park Community Association, which does not tolerate the spread of graffiti. Other neighborhoods can do the same, if they WANT to.

March 7, 2014

What an interesting story with such enlightening comments. Why are basic City services such as graffiti abatement so spotty, so outsourced, so convoluted and difficult to obtain or track? It seems to me that something is out of whack when there is no clear line between need, delivery and accountability. Is this the public/private contract trap?

March 7, 2014

I was with you until the last sentence. It's silly to blame the private sector for this... their only involvement is if they have a contract to clean graffiti for the public entity. They either do so satisfactorily, or they do not. If they don't, the contract has been broken. If the public entity doesn't stop sending checks to the private contractor, then this is STILL 100% a government problem.

You cannot give someone a job, tell them they have that job for life no matter what and that they will not be fired no matter what, and then expect to get the job done well, if at all. Public employees need to be held accountable for their performance or lack thereof. Government should not be a jobs program, it should be a way to deliver essential services as efficiently as possible.

March 9, 2014

A refinement to the first commenter's information: in some assessment district areas, Urban Corps isn't the graffiti-removal contractor paid for using assessment funds. Other contractors sometimes win the bid war when Requests For Proposals are publicized by the maintenance district boards.

So, a property owner in one of these districts is paying for the citywide Urban Corps contract via general taxes, and for privatized services by a competing company in an assessment district. What happens to a phoned-inn graffiti report or an email to Urban Corps in this case? What happens to a report to the City in this case? Are there unspoken agreements with City personnel and Urban Corps to relay the reports to the privatized graffiti crew? The Park & Rec and Economic Development departments should answer this question.

My view is that the City's goal is to have every neighborhood privatized, through assessment/special benefit-district property taxes, so that they can get out of the neighborhood maintenance/cleanup business completely. But that would be illegal, because State law is that government service cutbacks aren't allowed under the "special benefits" concept of assessment districts.

City Atty, opine on this???

March 7, 2014

One more thought - Remember the lawsuit in Mission Hills about the man paralyzed by a falling palm tree? The City lost that suit, and a co-defendant was the contractor (West Coast Arborists) hired by the area MAD to trim the palm trees. There SHOULD have been double services in that area - the regular City tree trimming AND the private MAD contractor services - but there was not.

So figure it out: Privatization is the worst thing that can happen to taxpayers. Let's have a good, well-funded, logical City-staffed maintenance service, and stop forcing the privatization schemes on selected neighborhoods.

March 7, 2014

Government doesn't do their job, and you blame the private sector?!?! How, exactly, does that work?

Let's A) hold public employees accountable for doing their jobs satisfactorily; and B) fund essential services FIRST and leave the leftovers for the giveaway programs.

March 9, 2014

How about this? Anyone who's convicted of putting up graffiti gets a sentence, not in jail, but of responsibility for cleaning up graffiti in a given area. The City provides cleaning materials, paint, etc. They're required to respond to all reports of graffiti within 24 hours and either clean it or repaint the vandalized object. They're required to do occasional patrols to proactively look for graffiti. Do that, and I bet that not only are they permanently cured, but they'll beg their buddies to not get out the spray paint any more.

And a second offense equals five years in state prison, just to give an additional incentive to not act the fool again.

March 9, 2014

Who would monitor and supervise the convicted taggers? We can't expect them to work on an honor system. But making them (or their parents, if they're minors) pay $thousands in fines certainly gets their attention.

March 9, 2014

The neighborhood reps for our councilmembers should also be "required to do occasional patrols to proactively look for graffiti." But then they'd have to work a little harder for their pay, and might complain loudly. It wouldn't kill them also to work a few hours with the Urban Corps occasionally.

May 28, 2015

Why not use county convict crews when they are not fighting fires?

March 10, 2014

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