Vandalism is an ongoing problem at public parks. Deplorable recent examples were reported in Monday's Gazette: broken windows, skylights and doors, damaged siding and equipment stolen at Lake Elmo State Park.
Lake Elmo in Billings Heights is one of the most visited state parks in Montana, popular with anglers, boaters, picnickers, families, walkers, dog owners and wildlife watchers. When vandals strike Lake Elmo or any Billings city park, the real victims are the people who use the parks responsibly. Vandalism and break-ins take park staff time and limited taxpayer funds away from other park maintenance work.
"We've seen a lot less vandalism and graffiti than last year," said Department Director Mike Whitaker. The number of complaints from the city's larger parks has dropped 30% since last year when Police Officer Nick Lam was assigned to patrol the parks full time. He became the city's first dedicated park patrolman.
The city parks also have volunteer ambassadors who provide information to park visitors, keep an eye on their park and report concerns to the department or Officer Lam.
Spray painted graffiti is one of the most common types of vandalism. The Billings Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department has found that getting rid of graffiti within 24 hours helps discourage more of it, Whitaker said. If the painted messages stay put, other vandals tend to add more graffiti in a destructive sort of competition.
Lots of volunteers help with removing or painting over graffiti, Whitaker said. Even with volunteer help, the cleanup can be expensive. He said the best spray paint remover the department has found is a compound called Elephant Snot (which looks like snot) and costs more than $80 a gallon.
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This summer, volunteers painted artistic murals in some of the Billings bike tunnels, which previously had been repeat targets of vandals. The artwork seems to have slowed down the vandalism, Whitaker said.
Lake Elmo staff also cleans up the vandals' damage as soon as possible. Although Lake Elmo is a state park, it is within the Billings city limits and Billings police have responded to the park's calls to help as they can, Park Manager Terri Walters said.
The BPD's crime prevention unit performed a physical security survey for Lake Elmo that indicated more outside lighting would be beneficial. More lights were added in the past two years, but still more would be helpful, so Walters told The Gazette's Rob Rogers that she will contact NorthWestern Energy about installing more lights.
"We are always interested in having people volunteer at the park," Walters told The Gazette. "We usually have a variety of projects for people, some general maintenance and some that require more skilled labor."
"We encourage park visitors to report any vandalism or unusual activity to Billings city police," she continued. "Any extra information they can provide is useful — car descriptions, plates, description of people, etc."
All of us own our state and city parks. We should take that ownership seriously. Take care of your parks, encourage your family and acquaintances to respect the parks as valuable property. Consider becoming a park volunteer. Check the box above for information.