Graffiti mars a utility box on N. Lacy Street in Santa Ana. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Monday, January 31, 2011 | With an eye on cost savings, Santa Ana City Council is considering whether to replace five city workers who clean up graffiti with a $50,000-per-month private contractor.

The proposed $600,000 contract with Los Angeles-based Protective Coatings, Inc. will cost about half as much as the $1.1 million in salary, benefit and equipment costs the city now pays for its in-house operation, according to figures released by city’s employee union.

However, the union says any claims of budget savings are misleading because the city’s graffiti cleanup workers will be transferred to another department rather than being laid off.

“If it was all rosy, and the value was there, and there was going to be these good savings, would it have been done already? Yeah it would have been done already,” said Michael Sherritt, Orange County general manager and external organizing coordinator for Service Employees International Local 721.

City officials did not return calls for comment and would only respond via email to questions posed by a Voice of OC reporter.

According to an email from Executive Director of Public Affairs Jill Arthur, the city will save $120,000 because the contractor will offer graffiti crime analysis — currently contracted out to another company — for free.

A staff report also says that the company’s workers will be armed with special equipment that will allow for a color-matching scheme, removing graffiti scars that are left when workers don’t paint over the graffiti with a color that exactly matches the facade.

City Council was initially set to take up the issue on Dec. 20, but has postponed the vote three times. Council members interviewed say they are still trying to gather all the facts.

However, Councilman Sal Tinajero made it clear that he is philosophically apposed to such contracting out.

“We are at a time in history where we are starting to believe that cheaper is better,” said Tinajero, who is a public school teacher.

Tinajero said that, while there are immediate savings, there will be other financial burdens for taxpayers in future years because the contract workers don’t get things like medical benefits.

Union representatives are not only dubious of the amount of projected cost savings, but also say that the company’s free graffiti crime analysis, in reality, doesn’t analyze anything. And a graffiti worker complains that the crew has to regularly clean up the contractor’s color-matching mistakes.

They also say that, because employees aren’t going to be laid off keeping the current city program is actually $55,000 cheaper.

Sherritt said the graffiti crime analysis program works by having someone in an office handling a database of graffiti photos. That’s where the analysis comes in — to determine graffiti patterns that indicate repeat offenders.

The contractor’s proposed service is free, Sherritt said, because there is no analysis.

“The free one is an iphone application – they take pictures and it goes into a database somewhere,” Sherritt said. “There’s no strategic targeting — it’s just a database, it’s free.”

Philip Lecours, who worked graffiti cleanup for the city until an injury took him out of the field, says that Protective Coatings won’t provide the same quality of work. He says city employees are constantly painting over the poor cleanup work of the contractor.

The company, Lecours said, doesn’t use the right colors and buys cheap paint, which lightens up and cracks quickly. “We’re taking care of our contractor’s mistakes, and it’s taking up our time,” he said.

Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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