Vandals are increasingly leaving their marks on public property in communities across the Merrimack Valley. They shatter windows, spray-paint the walls of city and town buildings and smear graffiti on war memorials.
The damage is eating up tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money, and taking an emotional toll - anger among neighbors and veterans groups who see the damage to parks and monuments, frustration among police who have little success catching the culprits.
The damage includes big spending in Lawrence - the city needed nearly $40,000 to fix broken windows at schools in the past year - and lesser but still frustrating wastes of money for items like missing street signs in Andover, at $100 for each sign that must be replaced.
In Haverhill, vandals have begun targeting war memorials, ruining parts of a wall at the Korean War Memorial that cost $100,000 to build and spray-painting graffiti on a granite monument for those who died in World War II.
"There's been a rash of it in the last couple weeks," said Haverhill Human Services Director Vincent Ouellette, whose department handles parks and recreation. "I don't know the reason.
"Basically, you try and fix it as fast as you can," he said. "It does cost money ... but you really can't let it stay in the condition they leave it in, or the destruction and vandalism will continue."
Making vandals pay
When five teenagers damaged parts of Greycourt Park in Methuen in May, they didn't know there would be a $1,452 bill for the damage they caused.
But a line-item cost analysis put together by the city's Department of Public Works shows how much it cost taxpayers to undo the vandalism.
Last week, that bill was sent to Lawrence Juvenile Court. The five teens, caught after a police investigation, will have to pay, to the penny, for repairs to a railing, the replacement of new bricks and the cleaning of graffiti.
"I guess that's the way you easily put a lid on it," Methuen DPW Director Raymond DiFiore said. "If someone's caught, you make them pay for it."
Earlier this month four teenage boys in Andover were ordered to do community service at the Shawsheen School after admitting to smashing garden statues, pulling up plants, emptying trash bins and burning a basketball net there.
When graffiti does get out of control, like on the playground at the corner of Chelmsford and Lawrence streets in Methuen, the city calls for a power-washer truck from the Essex County Sheriff's Department to clean it off.
Sheriff's Department spokesman Paul Fleming said the truck is dispatched five days a week between March and November on a first-come, first-serve basis. It costs the department about $200 an hour to operate the truck, which is staffed by a correctional officer and two or three inmates. There is no direct cost to the cities and towns the truck is sent to - but taxpayers' dollars do cover the cost of the program.
"This is a service. This is something the public can avail themselves of," Fleming said. "All they have to do is invite us and we'll show up and remove the graffiti."
Financial toll on a city
Dealing with vandalism is more expensive in Lawrence, where the city spent almost $40,000 fixing broken school windows in the last 12 months. Nearly $12,000 has been spent fixing windows at the Bruce School in the past year. It cost more than $6,000 to repair windows at the Guilmette School.
Michael Morley, buildings supervisor for the city's Department of Public Works, said he thinks schools become a target for vandalism because that's where teenagers hang out, often using adjacent basketball courts and playgrounds.
"Sometimes you get an element in the area that's hanging out and you try to get rid of them," he said.
Public and private vandalism in Lawrence is up 7 percent in the first seven months of 2007 compared to the same time period last year, according to police statistics.
There have been 419 reports of malicious damage to property in Lawrence this year, according to information compiled by John Reynolds, director of the Police Department's crime analysis unit. That "primarily includes damages to windows in public and private buildings, and damages to (motor vehicle) windows, and less frequently includes tagging and other types of deliberate property damage," Reynolds wrote in a memo.
Some neighborhood groups are working with the city to take down graffiti and stall vandalism as it develops, using paint and brushes donated by the city or businesses.
"We're not going to eradicate how it got there," Lawrence DPW Director Frank McCann said. "To put a dent in the graffiti, you've got to catch somebody doing it, and somebody has to send a message."
Lawrence police Chief John Romero said there were 27 graffiti arrests last year and 14 so far this year.
"But people have to call us when they see something suspicious," Romero said. "The biggest deterrent to graffiti is to clean it up right away when you see it. Most kids aren't going to spend a lot of time painting something if they know it's going to come down quickly."
Less expensive, but still frustrating
Haverhill has had a recent rash of spray painting by vandals. Most has been on cars and other private property, but on Friday, neighbors of the Gale Park area of the city were shocked to find the letters "YO" spray-painted on a World War I memorial there. That aerosol attack follows the vandalism of the Korean War Monument in GAR Park earlier this month, when vandals dislodged part of a wall.
Graffiti in Andover is restricted to mostly the back walls of the Shawsheen Plaza on North Main Street, police Chief Brian Pattullo said.
"There hasn't been a lot of tagging going on in Andover," town DPW Director Jack Petkus said, "which says something for our kids, anyway."
Petkus said his crews do find themselves occasionally dealing with varied types of other vandalism. Street signs tend to go missing and cost the town about $100 each to replace.
In North Andover, vandalism is restricted mostly to graffiti, police Lt. Paul Gallagher said.
"(It's) sometimes on our schools, sometimes on our bridges. We even had it at the DPW several years ago," Gallagher said.
Sgt. Charles Gray and Officer William Brush are assigned to investigate graffiti in town and try to identify the culprits. When arrests are made, the offenders are usually juvenile, Gallagher said. As in Andover and Methuen, they may end up doing community service and paying monetary restitution.