Graffiti-Gate: NBC, Xavier Campos Attack

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.

Julie Edmonds-Mares

City of San Jose
Julie Edmonds-Mares
Acting Director
Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services
200 East Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA 95113
(408) 793-5553

Josh Koehn is a former managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley.

26 Comments

  1. Josh, 

    As a follow up can you tell me why SJMN is behind the curve with articles such as this. 
    Why did they post your articles like it was thier own. Weeks after your post.  I love your posts but why is the MN printing other news like they own it?

    This is another way the city is out sourcing union workers.  When are they going to do the same with public safety and just pay min. wage for all city employees and make them pay into a 401K.  The city used to have a 2 full time officers assigned to Graffiti who made numerous arrests which resulted in restitution.  Now we pay a
    compant to just do a paint over?  What is wrong with this picture?

    • Rick: Did you not see that the MN had to apologize to the LA Times for reprinting an article/editorial as its own with no mention that they lifted it verbatim from the LA Times!  MN has obviously lost all of its journalistic integrity and this is just one more example.

  2. Last time I checked, a trash can is not 40 square feet either.

    The city’s response, everything is out of context.

    Can’t wait for the state audit to come in!

    • When did you last check… in the third grade?  Using one of those rectangular, concrete-aggregate trash bins so commonly found in commercial areas, take one side at three feet wide and four feet high – that’s 12 square feet.  Multiply that by four sides and,voila, you have 48 square feet. I have no skin on either side of the issue, but folks might want to think a bit before they jump to conclusions.

      • The things you describe are called refuse enclosures. A trash bin is what the garbage/recycling goes into, not the structure surrounding it. 

        Besides, these enclosures are more often than not on private property- not City property (that the contract should apply to). San Jose should not be spending scarce dollars to paint bins owned by private garbage companies nor enclosures on private property.

        When businesses are required to pay the cleanup costs, they will rightfully demand adequate police staffing.  The SJ City Council will then be taken to task as to why 67% of the budget is not spent on Charterted services, and instead pissed away in RDA and Airport expenditures. $4 billion in debt for RDA alone, billions more for SJC (still floundering decade after decade).

        Meanwhile an outsourced company will happily paint your private property, overcharge the City and somehow manage to gain accolades for their wonderful service.  Graffiti on the rise, as SJ pumps tax money into LA County instead of keeping it in-house or at least local… Thanks Mayor Reed!

        • Oh my gosh, you must be a sanitation engineer.  Only then could you have such rigid and exacting descriptions for the paraphernalia associated with the leavings of humanity. 

          Did you know that you made a flying leap in your rebuttal?  My example was just that, an example.  You immediately jumped to the conclusion that the contractor must be painting containers owned by private enterprise. 

          As for the City’s monumental waste of funding for the airport and the RDA, you’re spot on, as most residents would agree, were they not so self-absorbed.

  3. “(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.)” 

    I guess the Mayor has gotten to SJI too. Really, it is not newsworthy that the Mayor was lying to the public to create panic and garner support for Measure B and the “fiscal emergency.”

  4. Josh-
    GPC has been doing this for years in Southern California and nobody has listened to any complaints that have been made. Fyi—they have held multiple no-bid contracts with the city of Bell, CA for YEARS, receiving increased payments with no council approval. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bravo to you for following up on Jenna Susko’s report.

  5. I don’t know anything about the figures posted in this article, but I do know graffiti is on the RISE in San Jose. Just drive around and look for yourself. I have lived in my area for about 15 years now, and I have seen a huge increase in graffiti in my neighborhood. In the past month, we’ve had 25 new tags just around our four-plex.

    About a week ago, I contacted Crime Prevention to report the graffiti in my neighborhood. They did a great job of telling me where to go, and who to contact to report the graffiti. They advised me to take photos of the graffiti, and to note the date, and location of the tags. I was advised NOT to clean it up until I had documented and reported it. I was also given the option to just allow the LA group to come clean it up so the offender had to pay for the clean up themselves. I chose to let them pay for it!

    This is very important: The reasons for not cleaning it up before documenting and reporting the graffiti: Tags are gangs way of communicating with one another, AND the SJPD can fine the people responsible for doing this. The SJPD keeps records/photos of these tags, and they know who is doing it. 

    I took photos and met with an Officer who is well versed in graffiti. He knew exactly who was responsible for these tags. He said that the City can charge the individual for City clean up, once it has been documented, so PLEASE be sure you take photos, go to the City’s website and report it. For more information contact Officer Tim Harden at [email protected], or contact Crime Prevention at 408-277-4133.

    Having said that, I think the City needs to re-think it’s decision to outsource graffiti clean up, and their decision to cut the Graffiti Unit. People aren’t educated about the importance of reporting graffiti. Since graffiti is a way of gangs communicating with one another, it is vital to report it to the PD. It could save a life, or prevent a gang killing, or a gang war.

  6. A staff member from district 1 stated that the 4 billion dollars of debt will be paid off by tax increments. Guess what? IT’S STILL 4 BILLION OF DEBT THAT THE TAX PAYER WILL PAY.

    As the council member of district one stated that he didn’t want his kids paying off future pension liabilities, I DON’T WANT MY KIDS PAYING OFF RDA DEBACLES!

  7. Hmm, graffiti, something I’ve been annoyed with lately.

    Permissions are set to public, hopefully folks can see this album.

    https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150669836840216.383529.532775215&type=3

    Pine Hill school has a student body that thinks it’s ok to scribble “CRIPS/BLOODS/X4” all over our lovely playground (not to mention, set fire to the slide, still waiting for Mr Rocha to stop playing hokey pokey long enough to fix it)

    I got tired of it.  Got tired of complaining to the school who would tell me, “We can’t paint over it, the labor union has domain over the school”

    Screw that.

    I went out with a roller, an old can of paint, and went to town.  I’ve been doing clandestine operations under the cover of darkness.  I cover at night, they tag in the morning.

    Last night I launched psy ops against the enemy.  In Sun Tsu terms, I sent in a doomed spy, his name is Zoidberg.

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150690254290216&set=a.41430035215.63002.532775215&type=1&theater;
    I’m not going to stop until these knucklehead, wannabe thuggybears get the hint.  This won’t be fine in district 9.

      • That won’t work on schools Kathleen.  It is powerless against the unions that run the school cleanup. 

        I talked to some teachers out there a day or two after my first offensive.  They informed me that some sort of union prevented the school employees from cleaning it up themselves.

        They gave me a thinly veiled warning to look out for retaliation from the union for my actions. Jeesh, that’s a little overextending.  Just pure utter nonsense. I shouldn’t have to put up with “CRIP” “BLOOD” “X4” and pictures of genitalia all over the school my children use as a park. They don’t need to see giant penis’s drawn on the picnic tables. 

        There’s also been an arsonist at the school.  One of the plastic slides was set on fire.  It hasn’t been replaced in 6 months… Isn’t there supposed to be insurance on that type of stuff?

        I complained to my councilman, and after a few months of being disregarded, I called him out on facebook, and got a weak response.  So in total here, we’re approaching the 6 month mark of tagging, arsonist, and just general no policing of the school at night, nor are any of the students doing the tagging held accountable.

        I’m going to start working with the school though.  I can’t blame them, but they’re sort of powerless between nanny laws and union contracts.  If it’s a school for thuggy Aspergers kids, what’s wrong with making them paint over something they’ve tagged?  I can’t think of a better way to actually reinforce the consequences.  Otherwise, Rob Cortese has to go out there and do it, then come moan about it on SJI..

        Stay tuned..

        • Robert,
          I say give it a try. Reporting and documenting graffiti is very important. If it is happening at the school, it is happening elsewhere in the neighborhood.

          Secondly, I’d show up at the next School Board Meeting with photos in hand and blast them for allowing these “TAX PAID” union employees to get a way without doing their job. As a matter of fact, let me know when you go, and I’ll go with you.

        • > I shouldn’t have to put up with “CRIP” “BLOOD” “X4” and pictures of genitalia all over the school my children use as a park. They don’t need to see giant penis’s drawn on the picnic tables. 

          You got something against multi-culturalism?

          Night time vigilante painting operations may seem to you like a reasonable response, but think about the feelings of the artistes who might be offended by your disrespecting their “oeurves”.

          If I had to guess, I would say that the local political leadership might very well think that a better solution would be to send you to a re-education camp where you would be instructed in tolerance and how to appreciate cultural diversity.

  8. GPC has burned thru almost all the monies in 9 monthes , that was supposed to be a 3 yr. contract. they are asking for more money. So where is the saving in outsourcing?? GPC has not offered to do an audit , showed no remorse in over charging San Jose , but 1/2 of Council insists they are doing a good job. Guess what people , Graffiti= Gangs its that simple . The Mayor is willing to overpay an outsourced company , but not willing to really and fairly negotiate with our own homegrown workers. it just doesnt seem right. its going to be interesting what the state audit will turn up

  9. Josh:  Is there a pension problem or is there a Mayor Reed Hiding the true source of the City’s Debt problem? What side of that story would you like to be on?

    http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_20517710?fb_comment_id=fbc_10150685356201669_21329821_10150685972896669#f10f0cbd5360473

    I learned from an article by Tracy Seipel in the Mercury News that the City is looking to sell about $60million worth of property owned by the agency formerly known as the “RDA.” the Money will be used to pay down the $4BILLION in debt that the RDA has left the City.  Yes, FOUR BILLION DOLLARS IN DEBT THAT THE CITY OF SAN JOSE IS ON THE HOOK FOR!!!

    Lets put some of these numbers in perpective!

    $500k saved per year thanks to GPC and solely applied to the $4billion in RDA debt means we could pay it all off in just 8000 years!!! (provided the creditors aren’t charging any interest other wise it will take a lot longer. A whole lot longer.

    The City is selling $60million in property. Thats nice. It just needs to sell 66.7 times more than that to pay off the $4billion.

    The $4billion in debt ACTUALLY left to us by the RDA’S FORMER CHAIRMAN CHUCK REED is ONLY 6.5 times MORE than the $650million defecit CHUCK LIED ABOUT and MALICIOUSLY ATTRIBUTED to the salary and pensions for police officers, fire fighters and other City employees!

    If as the City says $1million = 7 police officers/1 year, then $4billion = 28,000 police officers/1 year.  Imagine how safe San Jose could be for that one year with 28,000 police officers!

    Wait until the unions SHOP that to the news media.

    • I smell fiscal emergency so the city can cut more of retirees benifits. 

      See you in court so the city can lose more on the backs of tax payers.

      Total joke, the mayor and clowns are out of contol.

    • I had to chuckle about the notion that it is the City of San Jose that owes $4B…no, it is we the residents who owe the $4B.

      You may know that the County of Santa Clara collects $400 from each parcel in property tax for its own pension plans.  What you don’t know is that a similar scheme appears to be incorporated into the complicated language of Measure B which sets up a trigger for paying off the pension gap by a new parcel tax to the city’s pension funds.  The city may figure out a similar scheme (taxing sales of services, selling golf courses, etc.) to get out from under the RDA debt.

      By luck and his own nature, the legacy of Reed will be a fascinating blotch on the history of San Jose.