The city government has long viewed all instances of graffiti as a scourge, a sign of neighborhood deterioration that lowers property values and emboldens more serious criminals—a classic example of the broken windows theory. And aldermen and business and community leaders have generally been big supporters of the Daley administration’s Graffiti Blasters program, which for the last 15 years has dispatched city workers around the city to remove tags from public and private property at no cost to the owner.

But over the last couple months I’ve seen more graffiti in more places around the city than I’ve noticed in years—on the doorways of businesses on the northwest and southwest sides, on garage doors up north, and especially high on the walls of property along the Red Line (which is where I took the pictures above). Some of it was eventually blasted away or painted over, but in many cases not for several weeks.

It’s no secret that the city is facing major budget problems, and since summer some departments have been paring staff and slowing service delivery. The administration’s 2009 budget calls for more of both. But Matt Smith, the spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation, said the Graffiti Blasters program hasn’t been affected.

Through the end of October, Smith said, crews had erased or covered 144,956 patches of graffiti this year, up from 128,845 over the same period in 2007. “Our workers are keeping very busy,” he said. “There have been no slowdowns with graffiti.”

Unless something changes before the city council votes Wednesday on the 2009 budget, the program will have to carry on with less funding next year—$5.6 million, down 28 percent from the $7.8 million allocated for 2008. Most of the savings comes from slicing 14 staff positions.

Still, Smith insists that the program won’t have to reduce its workload because many of the cut jobs were either vacant or held by employees on leave who aren’t returning. “The effect should be negligible,” he said. “We’re not losing someone who’s out there on the street.”

According to the 2009 budget proposal, though, the cuts include seven laborers. And if Smith’s overall assessment is right, it raises the question of why we we’ve been paying millions more for the program than needed. “We’re realizing we can get the job done with the people we have [on the job] now,” Smith said.

Incidentally, it’s not the only division of Streets and San that’s likely to get less money. The budget for the Bureau of Rodent Control is slated to be reduced 17 percent, and the Bureau of Santitation—i.e., garbage collection—will be sliced 14 percent.