ashland.news
July 14, 2024

Escalating vandalism means more costs for Ashland Parks & Rec department

A damaged sink awaits replacement in the Community Skate Park restroom. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini
November 28, 2023

Besides dollar expense, attempts at prevention and making repairs takes workers away from taking care of other park amenities 

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Things are going bump in the night in Ashland Parks & Recreation facilities, resulting in thousands of dollars in repairs. 

Not even a quarter of the way into the current budget biennium, already more than half of the $20,000 budgeted for maintenance has gone into responding to vandalism, according to Tara Kiewel, an administrative analyst for the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission (APRC). APRC Interim Director Leslie Eldridge referred to the destruction as “heartbreaking,” and a strain on staff.  

Last week, Parks Maintenance Supervisor Wes Casale opened the door of one of two closed bathrooms at the Community Skate Park at the corner of Water and Hersey streets to show a visitor where some of the damage has taken place. 

Ashland parks maintenance supervisor Wes Casale described how efforts of his crew to repair damage in parks takes away from the time that should be spent maintaining Ashland parks. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“Everything in here has been broken multiple times. … We used to have mirrors, that’s what these holes were,” he said pointing to a bare wall above a sink shattered across the front. 

On the floor in front of the shattered sink was a large box holding a new sink, soon to be installed. For every broken fixture, APRC orders a replacement with around two weeks shipping time. Installation usually takes two staff members, all leading to frequently long closures for repairs. 

“We don’t have to sugarcoat it. Restrooms — there’s a basic need. … A lot of people in the park will stop us and ask, ‘where’s your closest restroom?’” Casale said. 

This 45-second video made by Ashland Parks & Recreation staff shows vandalism to restrooms by Calle Guanajuato and at North Mountain Park.

Casale has been with APRC since 2011. Back then, he said, parks staff were comfortable using parks bathrooms. Now, most staff use restrooms in parks offices and gear shops. It’s become common to find broken mirrors, graffiti, trash, plumbing “kicked out” and spraying water, doors bent, locks broken, urinals broken, or soap dispensers ripped off walls. 

Used needles have become routine. Sometimes they’re found inside toilet paper rolls. Those sleeping in restrooms sometimes partially unscrew motion sensor lights to disable them, Casale said. When parks staff screw them back in, needles often fall out. But frequently needles are flushed, leading to clogged toilets and the necessity of calling in plumbers with specialty snakes. 

Recently, mirrors in three parks bathrooms were all broken around the same time. Parks staff got a phone call informing them a bathroom in North Mountain Park had not only a broken mirror, but all the toilet seats ripped off, trash strewn everywhere — and, where the hand dryer used to be, a pair of live wires sticking out of the wall. The person who reported the damage said they almost accidentally touched the wires. 

Tiles on a wall in an Community Skate Park bathroom have been damaged as part of the ongoing vandalism seen in parks. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Most of the activity seems to happen at night, Casale said, or at least at odd hours. 

The current wave of vandalism started about two years ago with a rush of graffiti. Parks staff and volunteers focused on painting over it. But the problem has continued to escalate. 

Garfield Park opened this summer with a labor intensive incident. 

“The first four days it was open, someone broke massive amounts of glass all over the splash pad,” he said. 

Ashland parks maintenance supervisor Wes Casale shows photos he received from parks employees documenting damage. He says the problems are constant and use a lot of the time he would like to use for regular parks maintenance. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Staff put up signs warning the public and urging wearing of shoes, and scoured the area on their hands and knees for all the almost imperceptible slivers of glass, he said, because small children are the most frequent users of the splash pad.

Last year — during Little League baseball games at Hunter Park — an individual was repeatedly in the men’s room “writing with fecal matter, obscenities, all over the walls,” Casale said. When the writing was reported, the individual had already disappeared. 

With 35 restrooms in 19 parks, APRC staff can’t watch all the facilities all the time. The nonprofit organization Pathway Enterprises has a contract with the city of Ashland to clean the restrooms and empty trash cans, but only once a day before they’re locked at night. 

Wes Casale, a APRC maintenance supervisor, shows some of the security measures the department has implemented to try securing public restrooms. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

Staff have a group chat on their phones to keep track of the latest issues. Restrooms are closed as soon as damage is reported. Staff feel responsible for the condition of the restrooms and what could happen if an issue such as broken glass isn’t caught fast enough, he said. 

While police were eventually able to apprehend someone in the case of the Hunter Park feces writer, bathroom vandalism is a unique challenge, said Deputy Chief of Ashland Police Dan Moulin. Cameras can’t be installed inside restrooms and the volume of physical evidence can be self-defeating. 

“Even if we get fingerprints, that wouldn’t narrow it down, there are so many,” Moulin said. 

A suspect can also usually explain the presence of their fingerprints in a public bathroom, he said. If there are exterior cameras, those caught on camera are often masked. 

The bathrooms at Ashland Creek Park have recently been reopened after they were repaired. Parks maintenance supervisor Wes Casale says graffiti and physical damage is way up in the last 18 months. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

“One of the unfortunate things to come out of the pandemic — it’s not unusual to see someone wearing a mask. Criminals, they’re not dumb. They know if they’re wearing a mask it’s harder to identify them,” he said. 

Parks staff are working with law enforcement. Eldridge and Moulin urged the public to report any potential vandalism to APD (541-482-5211, or call the anonymous tip line at 541-552-2333 or email tipline@ashland.or.us). 

Casale said determining who the culprit or culprits may be is “a question for psychologists.” 

E.G.
Material costs to repair the recent vandalism in restrooms at North Mountain and at Ashland Creek parks:
Mirrors (2) 30 x 18″ – $61.50 each
Mirrors (2) 36 x 24″ – $96.95 each
Urinal- $276.95
Sloan Flushometer (plumbing/installation parts) – $239.95
Global Rubber Base 6” x 48′  – $169.95
Excel Xlerator Hand Dryer – $535.00
Bemis Toilet Seat Covers (2) – $30
Total materials, including freight: $1,801.74
Approximately 24 hours of staff time: $1,375 
Total of labor and materials: $3,176.74

He and other parks staff say they have noticed an increase in unfamiliar faces within Ashland’s houseless population recently. Some have told Casale that word about Ashland spreads through social media. But the city’s position on Interstate 5 has long brought in new people, he said. He speculated those “passing through” could be responsible for some crimes, such as the recent burglary from a maintenance shed. 

Individuals brought tools to cut a chain link fence and break the shed’s lock, he said. Multiple tools were stolen. It was an individual living in their car near North Mountain Park who first informed staff the shed was broken into and called the police, Casale said. 

“They’re an asset. We have a few car campers who we say are our ‘unhired security,’” he said. “You see them almost every day, a lot of’em you kind of get to be friends with’em. We don’t differentiate, they’re all parks users. Some of’em are just more permanent.” 

Casale said staff focus on compassion and building good relationships in the face of a “multi-faceted issue.” He has been physically attacked by parks users twice in his tenure with APRC. He and other staff have dealt with overdoses and taken deescalation training. 

APD has also noticed a recent increase in unfamiliar faces among the city’s houseless population but, in his experience, crime of this kind is often traced back to teenagers, Moulin said. And, he said, night shift officers have noticed groups of youths hanging around Ashland’s parks at night.

For parks, the scale of the problem has ripple effects. 

“There’s so much deferred maintenance. … For irrigation, there’s tree work that needs to be done, seeding and fertilizing — all these things that take a lot of time, it takes away time from all of that. We have a long list of projects, staff really should be maintaining our infrastructure so it lasts,” Casale said. 

The parks department says it is constantly adapting. There have been conversations about closing restrooms earlier. Some doors have been re-engineered with metal bars inside to try to prevent people from bending them or prying them open. Metal grates have been installed on door vents to prevent breaking them off, reaching inside and unlocking the doors. There are new varieties of locks. Thermostats are turned down inside restrooms. Many facilities have common colors to make it easier to cover graffiti. 

“They’re (APRC staff) pretty used to it. We don’t really get rattled, it’s just, ‘What do we need to do?’” Casale said. “There’s been a lot of meetings, a lot of talks. You always think someone will come up with a good solution. … The thing is, we don’t want the public to get used to it. It’s a bad product, we don’t want to put out a bad product.”

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

Nov. 28: Wording updated clarify what alternative restrooms parks personnel are using.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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