As Columbia Association worker Rafael Velasquez toiled for a second day scrubbing graffiti from the face of the Wilde Lake dam, Marcia Gorrie tried to make sense of the defacement.
"It always is bewildering," Ms. Gorrie, a Wilde Lake resident, said during a break in her walk around the Columbia lake yesterday morning. "I mean, why? It really is so pretty."
Columbia Association (CA) officials are asking themselves the same question more frequently this year, as maintenance crews routinely are forced to drop their regular duties to repair damage caused by vandals.
In the last year, the nonprofit association that manages Columbia's recreational facilities, community buildings and parkland spent an estimated $80,000 fixing damage caused by vandals. Although CA officials haven't kept figures on the costs of vandalism over time, they believe the expense is growing.
But money doesn't measure the true cost of this crime, say CA officials, police and Columbia residents. Community pride, neighborhood appearance and investment, and CA workers' morale and their other tasks also suffer, they say.
From January through May, CA's open space management division spent more than $22,000 fixing damage caused by vandals, including about 655 hours of staff time and $10,800 in supplies.
The destructive activities have perhaps increased this month. During the weekend of June 3 and 4, more than 40 graffiti sites were reported in Town Center's lakefront plaza. Several other incidents of destruction to CA property in that area have followed.
On June 13, Howard County police charged two juveniles with destruction of property for breaking lights off a boat storage area at the Lake Kittamaqundi dock in Town Center. Police Tuesday filed the same charge against another juvenile who allegedly painted graffiti on the Rouse Co. building and a nearby CA fountain.
In the last year, vandals also have struck CA tot lots, underpasses, bridges, lake pavilions, athletic clubs, a golf course, and village and neighborhood centers.
Vandalism typically increases in the summer, said CA spokeswoman Pamela Mack, noting that the association's pools last summer suffered $10,000 in damage.
That pattern was evident last weekend when vandals spray-painted black scribblings on a tier of the newly rebuilt Wilde Lake dam and the floor of an overhanging deck. A maintenance foreman Pat Burton said the dam has been defaced four or five times this year.
Mr. Velasquez and CA landscaper Heidi Pringle each have spent about 24 hours over the last two days scrubbing the graffiti with chemicals and wire brushes. Mr. Velasquez normally would have been mowing throughout Wilde Lake village and Ms. Pringle would have been gardening around Lake Kittamaqundi.
"This wears them out," said Mr. Burton, their foreman, who spent part of his Tuesday morning inspecting the dam with police. "This is one thing we don't need at all."
Wilde Lake residents Stan and Dotty Rodbell, who walk around the lake every day, said yesterday they were annoyed that part of the annual property levy they pay to CA must go to repair the work of vandals. They said they've seen other signs of vandalism around the lake, including burned trash cans and a broken water fountain.
"It's minor league stuff," said Mr. Rodbell. "I'm concerned it not be a forecast of more serious crime or an increase in crime. I think Columbians think of themselves as being separate from the real world. To some extent, we are, but not completely."
Mr. Rodbell complimented CA for being "very responsive" to vandalism incidents and keeping property well-maintained, adding that the quick response reduces the impact on the community.
CA attempts to erase graffiti and fix damage as soon as it is discovered in order to discourage other vandals, Mr. Burton said. "There's gratification in seeing the stuff remain," he said.
The association hasn't compiled the total costs of tackling vandalism in Columbia, Ms. Mack said, but division directors are submitting periodic reports this year.
She said vandalism has been a problem throughout CA's history, noting the association made vandalism-prevention presentations in schools in the mid-1970s. "It's probably worse now because we own more facilities," she said. "There's more to be vandalized."
CA hires a security guard to patrol the Town Center lakefront area every night, along with another guard hired by the Rouse Co. Last year, county police started patrolling Columbia pathways on bicycles, which Ms. Mack says could reduce vandalism in wooded areas. Otherwise, residents' vigilance is the best way to reduce vandalism, she said. "CA will prosecute," she assured.