Are San Jose’s graffiti clean up crews juking the stats to make more money? That’s the question our favorite investigative crew over at NBC is asking.
Last June, the city laid off employees and outsourced its graffiti abatement program in an attempt to cut down on expenses to the General Fund. Graffiti Protective Coatings (GPC), a Los Angeles-based private contractor, signed a five-year contract with the city worth $3.1 million. GPC earns 40 cents for every square foot of graffiti removed, meaning the company is budgeted to clean around 1.5 million square feet of graffiti at $633,000 a year.
But only nine months into that contract, GPC told the city that it has already exceeded its yearly quota. The matter goes before the City council today.
GPC’s request for more money raised some questions about the accuracy of its reports, which sparked NBC into action. (Readers might remember the $650 million unfunded liability brouhaha NBC reported on earlier this year. It’s worth mentioning that story was shopped by labor union consultants to every news outlet in San Jose, and most passed because it focused on the mayor’s use of a number rather than the city’s very real pension crisis.)
NBC reports that it found examples of GPC exaggerating the size of clean-up orders, including the seat of a playground swing being reported as 40 square feet.
Councilmember Xavier Campos, ready to prove nothing escapes his attention, jumped all over the story, noting that “graffiti has certainly not decreased in our neighborhoods.”
City staff issued a response following NBC’s report, stating that there were cases of glitches in GPC’s reporting, which have since been fixed. But some of the most galling examples provided by the TV station’s report were inaccurate and brought to the reporter’s attention before the story was reported, according to a memo written by Julie Edmonds-Mares, the city’s acting director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.
“One abatement was reported as a swing of 40 square feet,” Edmonds-Mares writes. “The work order actually clearly documented that the abatement also included a nearby trash can, which totaled to the correct square footage.”
The memo also notes that GPC has gone above and beyond in some clean-ups—which could be why its asking for more money—and as a result, certain areas of San Jose have seen graffiti decrease by 50 percent.
Most importantly to the cash-strapped city, though, despite GPC asking for a raise, San Jose is currently scheduled to save more than $500,000 annually by eliminating the city staff positions and outsourcing the abatement.
Below is the memo written in response to the NBC news report by Julie Edmonds-Mares, the city’s acting director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services:
Mayor and City Councilmembers,
Last night on its 11:00 p.m. newscast, the new NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit ran a story about the San Jose Anti-Graffiti Program that questioned the effectiveness of our graffiti eradication contractor, Graffiti Protective Coatings (GPC). Unfortunately the story was incomplete and did not include essential information and context about the program, GPC, or our actual progress eradicating graffiti under our new service model.
The most significant allegation by NBC was that GPC is overcharging the City for graffiti abatement. The reporter referenced several occasions where GPC over-reported the square footage of abatements and implied that this was the pattern for the 25,000 abatements done so far this year. This is not correct. My staff has looked into this matter, and we have found some instances in work order data of both over-reporting as well as under-reporting of the abated surfaces. Our preliminary findings attribute this to an automatic estimation by GPC’s field reporting devices with square footage entries for certain types of abatements. Now that this glitch has been identified, GPC has corrected it. The contractor’s field crews now measure each tag precisely utilizing a measuring tape.
In addition, while it is not our intent to engage in a point-counterpoint with the investigative crew, we would like the Council to be aware of inaccuracies in the story that were brought to the reporter’s attention, but not reported:
One abatement was reported as a swing of 40 square feet. The work order actually clearly documented that the abatement also included a nearby trash can, which totaled to the correct square footage.
Removal of stickers from a stop sign is not measured by the size of the stickers, but by the pressure washing required for removal. Once again, the square footage was correct.
Repainting complete surfaces such as a fence (referred to in the story as merely beautification) is performed to eliminate previous mismatched abatement and to give the surfaces a vandal free finish. The story implied that fence painting was excessive to increase billing.
PRNS staff oversees the contractor, including spot checks for accuracy which is now possible due to the documentation that did not exist prior to this contract. In our experience, GPC has been very responsive and immediately addressed issues brought to their attention.
What the report also failed to mention was:
• This new service delivery model is saving the City more of $500,000 annually compared to our former approach to abating graffiti.
• Residents can report graffiti via a Graffiti Hotline that is staffed 24/7, and not voicemail.
• GPC provides a free app for smart phones so that residents can report graffiti using the phone’s GPS locator and camera. This has been very successful in expediting customer service and responses for abatements. Residents who use the app receive “real-time” status updates with e-mailed before and after photos.
• The contractor shares its comprehensive database of tagging monikers to assist law enforcement in tracking and successfully prosecuting vandal and gang activity.
• GPC provides professional color matching and restoration services instead of simply painting over tags with mismatched colors, which has created a “secondary graffiti” in the past. The restoration service also makes it much easier to remove subsequent tagging of those surfaces.
• Contractor has provided generous assistance to our extensive network of more than 3000 volunteers. Contractor has donated free paint, supplies, and training to strengthen community engagement for eliminating graffiti. This has included sponsorship of neighborhood clean-ups donating their staff time, supplies, graffiti kit takeaways, t-shirts and celebration lunches that is above and beyond contractual requirements.
• The new service model has resulted in excellent response times, with the majority of requests for service completed within 24 hours. We have received many compliments for the service with almost no complaints this year.
• We have seen decreases of graffiti by greater than 50% in areas assigned for focused abatement.
Although we are disappointed by the incomplete news story by NBC, staff will continue to work in partnership with GPC and engage our community stakeholders and other partner agencies to collaboratively and resourcefully eliminate graffiti blight in our neighborhoods while using our very limited resources as effectively as possible. We will be providing a status update on anti-graffiti services to the City Council at your next meeting on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.
I would be happy to answer any questions you might have about this issue.
City of San Jose
Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services
200 East Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA 95113