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Mayor defends strategy resulting in slower graffiti removal

Graffiti buildings around Blue Line near Damen Station. Thursday August 16 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

Graffiti on buildings around the Blue Line near the Damen Station. Thursday, August 16, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: September 25, 2012 10:48AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday defended his decision to cut his predecessor’s popular graffiti blasters program — and dramatically alter the city’s plan of attack — despite a slowdown that has so frustrated one alderman, he’s using his expense allowance to remove it.

“When we did graffiti [removal] the old way, we’d go into a neighborhood, do one wall, walk away and the rest of the neighborhood would still have graffiti,” the mayor said.

“Now, it’s the entire community and any community that’s had it since we did the blitz changes it …. So, while you’re calling it lag time, I see an entire neighborhood clean — not just one wall in a neighborhood. It’s a different strategy.”

Even after appeasing aldermen by restoring $1 million in graffiti removal cuts, Emanuel’s first budget reduced annual spending on graffiti removal from $5.7 million and 60 employees in 2011 to $4.1 million and 43 employees this year.

Still, the mayor insisted Thursday that “crew efficiency” is up 16 percent and calls to 311 are down 11 percent in the six months since the Department of Streets and Sanitation started blitzing four wards each day instead of handling graffiti removal requests on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“Doing it the old way doesn’t make it better — doesn’t mean you’re better serving. I like the fact that my commissioners are every day saying, ‘How do we better serve the people … and live with a tight budget and do more with less?’ ” he said.

Ald. Robert Fioretti (2nd) countered that the mayor’s cutbacks and strategy change has left some buildings in his Near South Side ward plastered with graffiti since July 5.

Instead of leaving it there and creating the impression that the neighborhood is gang-infested, Fioretti is digging into his annual, $73,280 expense allowance normally reserved for office rent, telephones, cars and supplies.

“I’ve hired three people. We’ve taken down 2,000 hits of graffiti in the 2nd Ward since the end of June. … I, myself, have taken down about a thousand hits,” Fioretti said.

“Graffiti is not being removed in parts of our city. These four-day hits and going ward by ward are ineffective. . . . It sends a message that we may be losing the battle to the gang war out there. All graffiti has to come down. At least under the other [Daley] administration, it was down in three days.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported this week that the mayor’s cutbacks have forced some neighborhoods to wait as long as three weeks for the city to cover up graffiti with brown paint or blast it off with a pressure wash of baking soda.

City Hall is also removing less graffiti — 64,000 instances through July, compared to 137,459 instances during all of last year.

Two months ago, concern about a spike in gang graffiti and a slowdown in its removal prompted Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) to propose a crackdown against juvenile vandals and their parents.

Two days after vandals defaced a memorial to fallen Chicago Police officers near Soldier Field, Zalewski proposed taking graffiti cases out of the hands of city hearing officers and returning them to the courts, where judges may be more inclined to throw the book at offenders.

In addition, Zalewski wants to dramatically increase the fines for graffiti vandals — from $750 and up to 1,500 hours of community service to $2,000 and “not less than three days” in jail or 2,500 hours of community service.

Now pending before a City Council committee, Zalewski’s ordinance would also double the minimum fine for parents or legal guardians — from $250 to $500 and raise the maximum fine from $750 to $1,000.

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