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Erasing graffiti doubly fast; Residents of neighborhoods with defaced properties applaud city's plan for 2nd team to deal with quality-of-life issue

Joggers see the unsightly markings on the walls of a pedestrian bridge as they sprint over the Scajaquada Expressway.

So do bikers as they pass a utility pole near Delaware Park's Hoyt Lake.

Motorists spot the vandalism on highway overpasses throughout the city and on vacant buildings that dot many well-traveled routes, including Niagara Street.

And until several days ago, some residents in the city's Delavan-Grider neighborhood were living next to long-vacant homes that vandals had defaced. The residents were pleased when city cleanup crews arrived to repaint the walls.

Buffalo is about to double up when it comes to grappling with its graffiti problem. Mayor Byron W. Brown's plan to add a second graffiti-busting team to a special unit won approval when the Common Council adopted a new city budget Friday. Meanwhile, some neighborhood activists are applauding the plan.

"It just uglies-up a property," Arthur Robinson Jr. said of the graffiti. "Then people have to get it removed, and it's extremely expensive."

The president of the Seneca-Babcock Community Block Club said he thinks the city is making strides in dealing with one of the most visible quality-of-life problems.

Robinson said that adding a second two-person team to its Anti-Graffiti Unit should produce noticeable results soon after the initiative begins this summer.

"The quicker [graffiti] is gone, the less it's seen, I think the better it is for the community," said Robinson.

Graffiti is far more than a pesky annoyance, experts insist. The vandalism can cause property values to decrease, attract other types of crime and force localities to spend scarce tax dollars to remove graffiti instead of investing in other public services.

Nearly one-third of all graffiti in some communities is tied to gang activity, according to some estimates. Such markings are often used to designate gang territories.

Brown said Buffalo officials are aware of the community's intolerance for graffiti.

"It's something that really gets under people's skin," the mayor told The Buffalo News during a recent interview when he outlined the intensified initiative.

The city's Anti-Graffiti Unit was created in 2008 and removed markings at more than 200 sites in its first year, Brown said. In 2011, the number of graffiti removals rose to more than 700. Brown said residents should soon witness a dramatic increase in the number of removals.

"We will have two teams, as opposed to the one that we have now," Brown said. "So I would hope that we would come close to doubling the number of removals that we're doing."

Burt M. Mirti has been coordinating Buffalo's Anti-Graffiti and Clean City Program. Over the years, Mirti has received generally positive reviews from lawmakers for his unit's responsiveness in dealing with graffiti complaints.

Mirti was in the Delavan-Grider neighborhood one recent day during one of the city's Clean Sweep blitzes. The program dispatches cleanup crews, fire inspectors, animal-control officers, social service workers and other teams to address blight, crime and other issues. Mirti inspected two vacant homes that crews had just repainted to cover graffiti.

"People have to live next to these structures," Mirti said.

Council President Richard A. Fontana, who represents the Lovejoy District, said he envisions widespread Council support for the stepped-up effort. Fontana said his only suggestion for improvement would involve placing a greater emphasis on the actual removal of graffiti at some sites, as opposed to painting over the markings.

Of course, Buffalo isn't the only community that has been battling the problem. Earlier this month, three Southtowns teens were charged with spray-painting graffiti on two Hamburg churches and several other buildings in a tagging spree.

Experts have underscored the importance of removing graffiti as quickly as possible. Graffiti Hurts, a national nonprofit group, cites studies indicating that the removal of such markings within 24 to 48 hours can result in a nearly zero rate of recurrence. The organization also stresses the need for consistent law enforcement to ensure that offenders receive stiff penalties.

Robinson said he and some other block club leaders have long believed that the justice system has been too lenient on some graffiti vandals.

"I think they're just getting a slap on the wrist," said Robinson, who believes that any repeat offender should be forced to spend at least a year behind bars.

But Brown said numerous cases have resulted in severe penalties.

"We've seen more arrests of graffiti vandals in the City of Buffalo, and we've seen these graffiti vandals be prosecuted for these crimes," he said.

The mayor agreed that such prosecutions are key to the anti-graffiti effort, noting that they send a "message that you can't commit this crime in the City of Buffalo and feel comfortable that you're going to get away with it."