It’s writing on the wall you don’t want to see in your neighborhood.
We're talking about graffiti.
San Jose taxpayers are paying-up to take it down.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found tax dollars may be going to a graffiti cleanup company for work they never performed.
Last June, the city of San Jose laid-off employees and outsourced their graffiti abatement program in an effort to save money for the General Fund.
Graffiti Protective Coatings (GPC), a company based in Los Angeles, was awarded the five-year-contract worth $3.1 million.
That means they’re budgeted to clean about one and a half million square feet of graffiti each year.
Nine months into that contract, GPC says it has already exceeded that square footage. So we went through over 25,000 work orders to see exactly how your money is being spent. (All work orders can be found at the bottom of this story.)
Then we grabbed a tape measure and checked the simple, but important math.
Take two swings in a city park: how many square feet?
Folks who spoke with us guessed between one and two. They were right. We measured them: about one square foot each.
That means the work should have cost taxpayers .80 cents, but they were charged $16.
A work order for a scribble on a trash can (see it here)
shows they charged 40 square feet to wash it off (photo to right).
“Does it upset you that they are overcharging the city and ultimately taxpayer dollars are being wasted?” Investigative Reporter Jenna Susko asks Julie Edmonds-Mares, the Acting Director of Park, Recreation and Neighborhood Services.
“Well, I disagree with you Jenna,” Edmonds-Mares responds., “you’re stating something I disagree with.”
Edmonds-Mares oversees the graffiti-abatement program for the city.
“I don’t believe GPC is overcharging the city,” she says.
And that’s after we showed her our findings.
“A swing,” Susko hands Edmonds-Mares the photo of the tagged swing, “ 40 square feet. Two swings to be rinsed off.”
“Well again, I’d have to check, double check the square feet, square footage,” Edmonds-Mares responds.
“Uh-huh,” Edmonds-Mares pauses, “right.”
We crunched the numbers.
Records from the past nine months show 83-percent of the sign stickers removed are charged as being five square feet. That’s 384 stickers out of 465 total removed from the end of June through the end of March.
”All of those sign stickers are 5 square feet” Susko says.
“Well a sign is,” Edmonds-Mares begins to reply, “I’m not an expert on square footage.”
Neither are we.
And how many trees have you seen covered in 25 square feet of paint?
According to GPC work logs they have cleaned 25 square feet of graffiti off 113 other trees citywide since June.
“It’s not what we paid for,” San Jose District 5 City Councilmember Xavier Campos tells NBC Bay Area.
“40 square feet?” Campos exclaims, “I don’t think you could get 40 square feet if you put ten swings together!”
“Does it make you mad to see this?” Susko asks Campos, “Oh yeah, I’m disgusted,” the councilmember replies while looking at the pictures.
That’s not all he’s upset about.
It’s a stark contrast from six years ago when San Jose's anti-graffiti program was nationally known for bringing graffiti down to 129 tags citywide.
“When you drive down the street and see you see it on every other light pole and every fourth utility box, it’s a problem,” Rick Stanton tells NBC Bay Area.
Stanton ran the program that grabbed national attention. He’s now a graffiti consultant for cities across the country.
Stanton tells us, city workers used to paint over just the graffiti, but not anymore.
Under the new “restoration model” GPC workers are instructed to paint an entire wall when there is an individual tag.
It’s called beautification.
The idea is that next time that same wall is tagged, workers will already have a matching color of paint to cover it up.
However it means a lot of large walls getting completely covered in fresh paint and GPC is getting paid by the square foot to do it.
Stanton disagrees with it.
“The wall looks good when you’re done but now you’ve earned a lot of money painting over other colored paint instead of graffiti,” Stanton tells NBC Bay Area.
“Correct,” Edmonds-Mares replies.
“Do you think it’s worth it?” Susko asks.
“It’s not only to make them all look uniform it’s so that the neighborhood feels a sense of safety and security,” Edmonds-Mares replies.
We wanted to talk to GPC but they ignored our repeated requests for an interview.
So we followed some GPC workers in San Jose. We asked them about photos from prior months.
We asked about those swings.
“What would you charge for that?” Susko asks one of the GPC workers.
“That’s just one feet,” he says.
“40 was written down,” Susko tells him.
“40 square feet? I didn’t do this,” he says, “That’s not 40. It doesn’t make sense.”
And we showed them the billing of stickers being removed.
“What would you say that would be? How many square feet?” Susko asks.
“That’s only one,” the worker replies.
We asked Edmonds-Mares, how these exaggerations were not caught.
“I have supervisors who oversee the program and no we do not check each and every incident,” Edmonds-Mares replies, “We do spot checks.”
She also told us, she would be willing to look into anything we find when looking over the GPC work logs.
“If there's ever anything you feel is inaccurate, we'd be more than happy to follow up,” Edmonds- Mares says.
“But that isn't supposed to be my job, that's supposed to be your job," Susko responds.
“Correct,” Edmonds-Mares replies.
Councilman Campos says he thinks more work needs to be done.
“Do you think there should be better oversight with the Parks and Recreation Department?” Susko asks
“Oh absolutely,” Campos says, “These are examples of abuse.”
“They do a great job in the community and I think you should report that as well,” Edmonds-Mares tells NBC Bay Area.
It’s a program that has replaced city employees with a Southern California company.
“I don’t know if this idea of contracting-out has been a success at all,” Rick Stanton says.
It’s a program that some say needs to be re-evaluated.
“We went from having a national model to this,” Councilmember Campos says, “A sad day for our city.”
The owner of GPC declined our requests to setup an interview but she did say in an email:
“Our company spot checks billings on a regular basis and have consistently found that the net result yields an under billing as opposed to over billing,”
We also went by the address listed for GPC in Los Angeles to talk to them in person. Turns out, it’s a PO box.
San Jose City Council will review the city's Anti-Graffiti Program in their meeting on Tuesday, May 1.
Web Extra: More GPC Photos:
Web Extra: GPC Work Logs:
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