News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 12, 2014

EDITORIAL: Teaming up to fight the ugliness of graffiti

Wise moves can help council lead charge

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Graffiti hurts the Terre Haute community. It deflates property values and local pride. It literally paints an image of carelessness on the city.

The Terre Haute City Council is wise to address the problem. The council’s approach, though, needs refining. Thank goodness, that fine-tuning is under way.

The council is considering an ordinance that would allow the city to work “hand in hand” with property owners to remove graffiti. Sounds good, so far.

The proposal would also threaten a potential fine on property owners who fail to take any action to remove graffiti or refuse to let the city clean it up. In its current form, the ordinance would impose a $25 fine on anyone who fails to remove graffiti within 30 days of receiving a notice from the city. That’s where we, and some City Council members, have reservations.

During Thursday’s meeting of the council’s Government Affairs Committee, Police Chief John Plasse said the city would perform the removal, and that the fines would only be imposed on property owners who do not allow the city to remove the graffiti. The ordinance, as it is currently written, does not specify that process. A notification letter to property owners spells out the “hand-in-hand” effort, but the ordinance does not. Councilman Jim Chalos, D-at large and the committee’s chairman, called for the city’s clean-up role to be included in the ordinance. And, it should be.

The committee tabled further consideration of the ordinance until a future time at the suggestion of its sponsor, Councilman Norm Loudermilk, D-3rd.

Any graffiti ordinance should not punish the victims of this thoughtless crime, especially those who fight the battle at their homes or businesses as targets of “tagging” week after week, month after month. That’s why it is crucial for the “hand-in-hand” clean-up plan to be distinctly included in the law.

Indianapolis enacted a similar ordinance recently. It provides property owners with removal assistance from the Keep Indianapolis Beautiful organization. That group has arranged a deal with an Indy home-improvement company to get free or discounted paint, as well as brushes, trays and rollers.

Indianapolis’ ordinance also could push owners of abandoned properties to sell, Jeff Miller, a city-county council member in Indy, told WISH-TV. Such a move could lead to a more active property owner who will watch the facilities more closely. That’s important, because neglected graffiti leads to more graffiti.

The Terre Haute council’s goal, obviously, is to reduce the ugly paint scribbles.

The other side of the graffiti reduction equation is cracking down on the perpetrators. They work in darkness and are difficult to catch in the act. Nonetheless, the apprehension and punishment of the vandals should also go hand in hand with the property cleanup rules. A communitywide focus on graffiti unfolded in 2007, with Vigo County officials urging jail time for the perpetrators. Depending on the damage, the penalties for graffiti offenses range from a class-B misdemeanor (up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine) to a class-A misdemeanor (up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine). Extensive damages could result in a felony charge. Those penalties are state statutes.

That same year, 2007, a Terre Haute man served 122 days in jail, plus a year’s probation, and had to pay restitution for defacing three CSX railroad cars and downtown storefronts between 2004 and 2006.

A concentrated, communitywide effort could significantly reduce Terre Haute’s graffiti problem. An ordinance that inspires clear cooperation between the city and property owners is one step. Coordination with volunteer groups is another. A crackdown on graffiti criminals is the other.

The City Council can lead that collective charge.