COLUMBUS — The messages scrolled in spray paint across city playground equipment and park facilities vary from gang-related to offensive language and the classic “Jack + Jane” declaration.
Graffiti is nothing new to Columbus, but officials here say it’s gotten much worse over the past couple of years — costing both the city and private citizens thousands of dollars and man hours to clean up.
“They literally have been hitting every park in town,” Randy Sedlacek, supervisor of the Park Maintenance Department, said of the vandals.
And the arrival of spring and summer weather is only expected to intensify the problem.
Sedlacek said graffiti becomes a weekly issue for the Park Maintenance Department during the warmer seasons, as taggers have hit as many as 10 different areas in a single night.
Last year, the city bought several cases of graffiti-removing products sold in aerosol cans, but cleaning up the spray paint has proved to be so expensive that a new product is now purchased in bulk from an Iowa company. Still, it costs about $400 for six gallons, and the Park Maintenance Department has already used one and a-half gallons in an attempt to wash away old messages over the past two weeks.
Sedlacek said expenses for labor and supplies have become so high that he has suggested a separate budget line item for graffiti removal.
While the total cost isn’t currently tracked specifically, it’s definitely more than $1,000 annually, according to Sedlacek.
Additionally, $5,000 was spent on a new power washer, which was attached to an old pickup and tank to be used almost entirely to combat graffiti.
The department, Sedlacek said, has also considered installing cameras at city parks to help catch perpetrators in the act — something that has proved to be difficult in the past.
Columbus Police Cpt. Todd Thalken said the parks’ spacious designs make them an appealing target for taggers, and the quickness of the crime and nighttime nature limits the chances an officer will catch someone red-handed.
While the Columbus Police Department has activities directed specifically at preventing graffiti, citizen reports remain the best defense.
“Probably the most effect method of catching graffiti vandals is when people call them in and we respond quickly,” Thalken said. “We would rather rely on 20,000 pairs of eyes than the half-dozen we can put out.”
State lawmakers have also taken notice of the growing problem. They revised state statute 28-524 to help limit graffiti issues throughout Nebraska.
Now, a first violation of the law is considered a Class 3 misdemeanor, while any subsequent violations are Class 4 felonies.
Judges can not only order perpetrators to clean up the damaged property, they can also require the individual to clean up any future graffiti in the targeted area for up to a year. Other possible sentences include mandated counseling and suspending an individual’s driver’s license for up to one year.
“We would love to arrest every one of these guys and solve the problem,” said Thalken, but graffiti is often a difficult crime to investigate.
Without a higher success rate when it comes to apprehending offenders, Columbus Park Maintenance Department could be in for another long season of scrubbing, rinsing and painting over the unwanted messages.
“Hopefully, it doesn’t continue to get worse,” said Sedlacek, “because it’s bad enough right now.”