Simi to Hire Outside Firm to Aid in Graffiti Cleanup : Vandalism: Officials say maintenance crews need to be freed up to patch potholes and repair drains. The added workers will ensure quick removal of paint.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A private contractor will be hired to beef up Simi Valley's graffiti removal efforts, with a goal of erasing such vandalism within 24 hours after it is reported, the City Council has decided.

Outside help is needed because a city maintenance crew is spending 60% of its time clearing graffiti instead of patching potholes and repairing storm drains, city staff members said.

In a unanimous decision Monday night, the City Council agreed to seek private graffiti removal help to ease the burden on city workers during weekdays and to respond to vandalism on weekends, when city crews are off duty.

Graffiti has become one of Simi Valley's most prominent crimes in recent years, with more than 5,500 incidents reported to police since February, 1990.

Council members, concerned that increasing vandalism could damage the image of the city and its neighborhoods, opted to spend up to $67,600 a year for private graffiti removal services.

"I view graffiti as sort of like crabgrass," Mayor Greg Stratton said Tuesday. "If you let it get a hold in your lawn, it's hard to get it out."

To discourage the practice, the city tries to clear graffiti quickly, giving taggers and other vandals little time to show off their work.

"We paint over it so quickly that no one gets the impression this is a graffiti-intense community," Stratton said.

City staff members told the council earlier this year that the growing demands of graffiti removal were causing city crews to fall too far behind in road and storm drain projects.

Instead of hiring another city employee to help paint over graffiti, council members asked the staff to look into hiring a private contractor to do the work.

Simi Valley staff members contacted the cities of Ventura and Oxnard, which use private firms for graffiti removal, and determined that such a contract would probably cost as much annually as a new city employee.

But Stratton said a private firm would offer more flexibility by providing more workers if a flurry of graffiti appears and no extra help when no new vandalism occurs. "You have to pay a full-time city person whether there's graffiti to (remove) or not," he said.

The city will seek proposals from graffiti cleanup companies within the next two or three months, then return to the council for final approval of the contract, said Laura Herron, deputy city manager.

Council members said the company will be required to match its paint closely to the color of any surface that has been vandalized so that the "patch" is less obvious to passersby.

This color-matching requirement will add about $10,000 annually to the cost of the contract, city staff members estimated.

Although private workers will be hired to paint over the graffiti, the council approved the hiring of one new city employee to help administer the program.

The additional graffiti administrator will allow the city to have someone on duty seven days a week to respond to graffiti reports, Herron said.

This worker will answer the city's graffiti hot line, keep a record of the offenses and order a prompt cleanup of any spray-painted symbols or messages.

The cost of the new administrator will be $52,000 annually, including salary, benefits and equipment. The new employee will probably be hired by early next year, Herron said.

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