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Tagger-nomics

YAKIMA - Graffiti, say the taggers, is an art form. Some pieces are. But most aren't. They're just an eyesore, a public nuisance. And a public burden.

Visit the 90,000 people who live in Yakima, Washington in the heart of one of the world's richest agricultural valleys some 100 miles north of the Oregon border, 140 southeast across the Cascades from Seattle and Tacoma.

Like every city big, small or somewhere in between, Yakima has graffiti. Lots of it. You see it on traffic signs, walls, mailboxes and billboards. In 2013, the City's Office of Neighborhood Development Services reports that it spent $44,000 - about five percent of the $840,000 in HUD Community Development Block Grant funds it received that year - to paint over graffiti at 12,583 locations, more than double the number from the year before. All told, volunteers recruited by the Office and People for People, NCAC WorkSource and the local juvenile justice system donated 8,986 hours of their labor and time - applying 699 gallons of paint to get rid of the graffiti.

As the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, the City's likely to have to do it all over again in 2014. And, until the cans of spray paint run dry, for years to come. "We are constantly fighting graffiti," Archie Matthews, the Office's Director told KLUR-TV, "if graffiti would just stop. If we could get the kids and the taggers to understand how much they're costing us as a community."

How big a cost? In its 2013 CDBG Action Plan, the City indicated that it was budgeting $51,228 to its Graffiti Abatement Program. In 2013, the City also set-aside other CDBG funds to give 26 homes owned by low and moderate income seniors fresh coat of paint. If the City hadn't needed a graffiti abatement program, another 20 homes could have gotten the same.

Similarly, in 2013 used CDBG funds to make emergency and other repairs to the homes of 115 low and moderate income seniors. It repaired or replaced 28 roofs, 10 doors and 12 windows. It fixed the wiring in 10 homes, the plumbing in 16, the air-conditioning in 24 and the heating system in 40. And, oh yeah, it installed 10 ramps to make homes more accessible for those with disabilities. On average, the City reports, it spent almost $4,676 for repairs at each of the 115 homes. If it hadn't had to spend CDBG on graffiti, it could have completed similar repairs on another 11 houses.

Graffiti is not just a problem in Yakima. Taggers are at work everywhere. It's estimated, in fact, that the cost of cleaning-up graffiti after the paint's dried is $12 billion a year nationwide.

Graffiti, taggers may claim, is just an act of free expression. Free? Then why is graffiti imposing so many costs, so many consequences on those of us who foot the bill to clean it up?

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