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Anyone using the Prince Memorial Greenway in downtown Santa Rosa Thursday would have found much to praise on the half-mile long stretch of Santa Rosa Creek.

Joggers and bicyclists traversed its wide smooth paths. Trees planted to create shade for young fish were sporting fresh spring foliage.

And a little green heron sat fishing at the base of the rapids beside Gateway Park.

But visitors would also have been assaulted by an avalanche of graffiti, vandalism and litter that city officials describe as heartbreaking to see.

"It's senseless," city parks superintendent Lisa Grant said. "It's devastating what is really a lovely feature of downtown Santa Rosa."

Graffiti of all kinds covers every type of surface along the greenway, including the retaining walls, stairs, bridges, railings and stonework. Artistic elements such as murals and hand-painted benches are unspared.

Patches of gray paint along the greenway attest to the city's ongoing efforts to cover up the problem.

But it's not just tagging that plagues the riverfront features. Vandals have kicked out stairway lights, smashed electric sockets and masonry and stolen copper wire. Someone ripped a chunk of tiles from the tail of the 13-foot-tall fish sculpture in Gateway Park called Guardian of the Creek.

But budget cuts have left the city's parks maintenance staff unable to stay on top of the problems along the $25 million greenway, which opened in 2008 after eight years of construction.

When it first opened, the city had a single maintenance worker dedicated to the greenway and nearby Olive Park. Today that worker has several others parks he also is responsible for, and can only spend less than a quarter of his time on the greenway, Grant said.

"There simply isn't adequate maintenance or presence on the greenway to keep it looking like the jewel that it really is," she said.

Graffiti has been a persistent problem along the greenway since it opened, said Sgt. Mike Lazzarini of the police department's property crimes division. "It's a pathway through our downtown that's utilized by all sorts of people," he said.

He doesn't believe the amount or type of graffiti have changed much, but said the city doesn't have the money it once did to hire a contractor to paint over the graffiti quickly.

The city requires property owners and businesses to remove graffiti within 72 hours, and tries to adhere to that same standard, Lazzarini said.

Crew supervisor Dean Hamlin noted that the greenway runs beneath freeway overpasses right beside large flat retaining walls that invite trouble. "The little (vandals) just have their way down here," Hamlin said. "It's kind of like an open canvas for them."

The parks department is trying to figure out ways to raise money and better organize volunteer cleanups of the area, Grant said.

One such effort is a concert being held Saturday at the nearby Church of One Tree. Called A Celebration of Jazz and Art to Support Our Parks, the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. event features a concert by Steve Puleo, a local pastor and jazz singer. All proceeds from the sale of the $15 tickets will go to fund park maintenance, Puleo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum

@pressdemocrat.com.