2014-05-01 / Front Page

Could graffiti relief be on way?

Under-used city clean up program questioned
By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A Portland nonprofit that focuses on housing, education and health community service projects for low-income people has proposed to start up a graffiti removal service in Biddeford that will be free for businesses and residents. LearningWorks, which oversees YouthBuild programs in both cities, also administers Graffiti Busters in Portland. The group’s volunteers removed approximately 25,000 square feet of graffiti in the state’s largest city last year, according to Eric Knutsen, development coordinator for LearningWorks.

The Citizens Advisory Committee in Biddeford considers proposals for funding and recommends to the city council how to allocate U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grants. The committee recommended $13,900 be allocated to the graffiti removal program. The council is scheduled to vote on all community development block grant allocations for next year on Tuesday, May 6.

Linda Waters, the city’s community development coordinator, said the city has a total of $426,218 federal grant funds to distribute, only 15 percent of which – or $63,900 – can be used for social services. The other 85 percent is proposed for other projects such as sidewalk improvement, housing development and micro-enterprise loan programs for businesses that are verified to be creating new jobs.

Waters said other social service allocations being proposed by the committee are $10,000 for the Seeds of Hope Career Center, $4,000 for the Art Van Program, $16,000 for a benefits specialist from Southern Maine Agency on Aging, and $4,000 for a new design apprenticeship program at Engine to engage local students in 3D printing.

Grady Sexton, who owns Grady’s Radio & Satellite TV, and is vice chairman of the Downtown Development Commission, said the commission has been removing graffiti in the city for several years.

“It costs almost nothing,” Sexton said.

Roland Lawler, a commission member who heads up graffiti removal by using community volunteers, said any resident or business can file a request with the commission for graffiti to be removed. The only expense for the commission, said Lawler, is the cost of the chemical used to remove the graffiti. One 5-gallon barrel of the product costs about $80 and lasts more than a year, he said.

“If we were getting 30, 40 complaints at every meeting, I guess it would be time to form a graffiti committee,” Lawler said, “but I don’t know about spending another $13,000 – there just doesn’t seem to be that big of a need.”

Waters said the LearningWorks proposal was “very reasonable” and the total estimated cost of the graffiti removal program was about $25,000. Knutsen said if the group receives the $13,900 grant, it intends to raise the remaining budget from private donations.

“This program is an opportunity for youth who need community service hours to fulfill their requirement by providing a service that teaches the importance of community service while benefiting the city of Biddeford,” Knutsen said.

Youth volunteers who need to complete community service hours would be referred to the Biddeford graffiti program from YouthBuild Biddeford, Targeted Case Managers, the school department and Juvenile Community Corrections Officers, Knutsen said. The expected $25,000 program cost would cover transportation, supplies and labor, he added. Because the service uses volunteer youth, the organization would need to staff each graffiti removal project with a supervisor, Knutsen added.

Sexton said one problem with graffiti is that it sometimes reappears at the same locations almost as quickly as it is removed.

Downtown Development Commission chairman Brian Keely said the commission has $500 budgeted for graffiti removal each year, but does not use the entire amount (Keely is the husband of Molly Lovell- Keely, managing editor of the Courier). Keely said if graffiti is on a public building, the commission would remove it for free. On private properties however, Keeley said the property owners are asked to pay for supplies – about $50.

“Some of the problem is, we put the program out there, but you have some businesses that don’t even seem to want to buy equipment and refreshments for volunteers,” Keely said. “Fifty dollars to have a dozen people show up and remove graffiti seems like a pretty good deal. When you have a mentality when some property owners don’t care, and absentee property owners, it’s hard (to address graffiti).”

Keely said the commission has also discussed whether the council should enact ordinances to require graffiti to be removed in a specific time frame.

An organization such as LearningWorks, which may be able to promote itself better and take on larger scale projects, Keely said could complement graffiti removal efforts in the city.

“It could be a plus, can be an enhancement to what already exists,” Keely said. “Anybody getting involved with graffiti removal is going to help.”

Keely said graffiti can appear in the city in waves.

“Sometimes you don’t see any for a while and then sometimes it shows up everywhere,” Keely said.

In terms of enforcement and prevention, Keely said the city has “danced around” the issue for years. LearningWorks, he said, may help the city to remove the unwelcome art as quickly as it appears.

“(The commission’s graffiti removal program) is probably a smaller scale of what they are doing,” Keely said.

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