The 20 or so Deer Creek Neighborhood residents who showed up at the St. Francis Community Center for an Oct. 16 meeting with city officials are sick and tired of the vandals who are destroying their Seelye Brook park. They want them caught and punished, and they willingly shared their thoughts, concerns and questions.
City Administrator Matt Hylen kicked off the discussion with a detailed report on the extensive vandalism to the park over the last two years. A slide show projected on the wall beside him featured photos of fire damage, broken playground equipment, graffiti and chopped-down trees. “This is your tax dollars getting damaged,” he said.
Among the damage: a slashed rubber tot swing, $103; a plastic ADA swing, close to $700; 75 trees chopped down or otherwise damaged, valued at an estimated $27,000; $764 in shot-out light fixtures; $824 for a dummy plate to block off the tube that once led to a destroyed slide. Broken playground tunnel sections run $700, and an entire new tunnel is $1,935.
The grass has been dug up and the ground ridged from four-wheeler tracks, said Hylen, which necessitates staff time to reseed and groom the grass or the even more labor-intensive placement of sod.
And it takes three hours of staff time on two separate days to apply the approved chemicals that remove permanent market graffiti from playground equipment, he said.
There were four fires set in the park this summer alone, with 15- to 20-foot high scorch marks on trees in a couple of cases. “If it had been windy, how many homes would we have been able to save?” Hylen asked.
A discarded toilet containing a “significant” amount of drugs was also discovered in the park, according to Hylen.
Over the past two years, damage to this one park alone is estimated at around $35,000.
The homes in the neighborhood adjacent to the park are valued at an average of $142,300, so each of those homeowners is paying approximately $700 per year in city property taxes, said Hylen. “For each $700 we talk about in damage, one of you [homeowners] is only paying for vandalism, not city services,” he said.
One resident said she hadn’t known about the fires until that night, adding that it scared her to death to think about kids back there smoking.
Another reported that there has also been some vandalism to homeowners’ private property in that area.
It is believed that most of the crime is happening during night-time hours, although some of it could be happening during the day because the area is not easily visible.
One woman whose home is adjacent to the park said she has no window toward the park and half the time her light gets shot out.
Many agreed that a tree-concealed parking lot at the park is a problem, since it allows juveniles to gather unseen by the nearby homes. One woman suggested that the city block off access to the parking lot so that kids can’t park there, since that seems to be a popular place for them to gather and smoke.
Hylen asked St. Francis Police Investigator Todd Schwieger at what point it is appropriate for people to call 911 if they see juveniles smoking.
According to Schwieger, it would be appropriate anytime, because intervening could help stop the situation from escalating.
One man said he had been babysitting his grandchild at a nearby home when he saw four or five teens urinating down a slide. He called the police, but when police arrived 90 minutes later the kids were gone.
But Hylen and Schwieger said residents should definitely continue to call when they see suspicious activity; response time may vary depending on what other activity or emergencies happen to be going on at the time, but police want to be notified and want to intervene. Callers can choose to remain anonymous if they wish.
Another resident suggested that the city look into a solution through technology, such as setting up wi-fi night-vision cameras. “We want to apprehend them, not scare them away,” the man said.
One resident said she wanted to see the city “put some real teeth” into any juvenile apprehension and make their parents “quake in their shoes.”
Another woman said she has heard that the juveniles behind much of the vandalism have seen a recent television news report on the situation and are now “scared to death” of being caught, so maybe the vandalism will now quiet down.
Although there was agreement that it doesn’t make sense to keep paying to replace park equipment that keeps getting damaged, a resident pointed out that getting rid of the park is punishing the wrong people.
Some residents expressed disappointment that only around 20 people showed up for the community meeting. Letters notifying people of the meeting had been sent to 269 homes. Some may not have been able to attend because school parent-teacher conferences were being held on the same evening, someone suggested.
Hylen said the city could certainly consider holding a second meeting, and he also encouraged those who did attend to go back and share with their neighbors what had been discussed that evening.
Councilmember Steve Kane assured people that the council will address the situation at its next meeting. “The three of us [councilmembers Jeff Sandoval and Tim Brown were also in attendance] will report back to the rest of the council at the next meeting and get a report from city staff on what our options are,” he said. “We’re looking to move on this, not wait until next summer.”
The next St. Francis City Council meeting will be held on Monday, Nov. 5 at 6 p.m. Residents who wish to address the city council should show up a few minutes early to sign up to do so.