HOUSTON—Graffiti, no doubt, is an eyesore.
But the eye opener is how your tax dollars are spent to clean it up. An I-Team analysis of city work orders found the numbers don’t always add up when it comes to billing Houston taxpayers for work done.
Consider an invoice for two tagged-up stop signs in the Heights. The “before” pictures of the graffiti are taken at 4:11 p.m. The “after” pictures, when it’s all cleaned up, are at 4:17 p.m. Total time? Six minutes. But how much time was the city billed for? Not six minutes, but 36 minutes.
And just a block away, the total time “before and after” is just two minutes. But how much is your bill? Again, it is more than a half hour.
Records show sometimes it gets even more questionable. In southwest Houston, graffiti on a school speed zone sign was gone in eight minutes. But the bill was for an entire hour. On the same street a couple of blocks down, taxpayers also paid for one hour’s work that took only one minute to clean.
“That’s outrageous,” said Jesse Garza. “[I] feel like they’re ripping me off.”
Garza and other parents were biking with their kids at Watonga skate park in northwest Houston, which was covered in obscenity-ridden graffiti.
“Four-letter words that these kids shouldn’t be reading,” said parent Janet Davis. “It’s awful, it’s just ridiculous.”
But the I-Team had a question for the mother.
I-Team: “If you charge by the hour what should you get for the hour?”
Davis: “An hour’s worth of work.”
But the city’s graffiti removal contractor, the Greater East End Management District, claims the I-Team is wrong. The District said there is much, much more to that hour billed, such as parking.
“We’ve got to find a safe place to park, that means setting up a parking perimeter,” said supervisor Marvin Chavez.
“It may be setting up cones, it may be mixing paints,” added President Diane Schenke.
Or it may be playing basketball on the clock. The I-Team caught one graffiti abatement worker shooting hoops on the job at a city park.
“Well, everybody on the crew is entitled to a break during the day,” said Schenke.
Maybe so, but here’s the key. We found the worker shooting baskets in the middle of the job. He took a “before” picture, then cleaned up the graffiti, and then proceeded to play basketball. The “after” photo is taken after that—making it look like the job took longer than it really did.
So what did East End Management have to say?
”The solvent needs to dry Jeremy,” Schenke said.
So we had to ask the City of Houston General Services Department.
I-Team: “Is that akin to paying a painter to watch the paint dry?”
Director Scott Minnix: “We’re uh, I don’t know, so I have to check more into that, but I’m not going to pay for work for them not doing.”
And as for those invoices, questioning an hour’s work for an hour’s pay.
I-Team: “Should you have done a better job checking up on this?”
Minnix: “We always want to do a better job.”
I-Team: “That’s not the question, looking at these invoices should the city have been minding the store more closely?”
Minnix: “I’m going to look into it more.”
Perhaps the city will get farther than we did, in getting billing questions answered.
“Jeremy, we’re going to call this interview to an end, we told you what the ground lines, the ground rules were, you’re not going with those and so, goodbye, we’re finished with the interview thank you very much,” Schenke said.
When we asked Schenke to give herself a grade, she told us the Greater East End Management District is doing “an excellent job,” with no unsatisfied customers, and having cleaned up 86,000 graffiti sites.
As for the Watonga skate park, the tagging was cleaned up shortly after our interview with the city.