A bill to impose tougher penalties on graffiti vandals is on Gov. McCrory’s desk, waiting to be signed.

House Bill 552 makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to create graffiti vandalism. However, it’s charged as a Class H felony if the offender has two or more prior convictions for graffiti vandalism.

A Class H felony carries a sentence of four-to-25 months.

The final, amended bill passed the House 98-11.

Democrat Verla Insko represents Orange County District 56 in the state House. She voted for HB552.

“The amendment that Sen. Stein added in the Senate made it more clearly targeted to gang members, and not to just innocent graffiti,” said Insko.

She’s referring to District 16 Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat. (Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat representing Orange and Durham, had an excused absence, and did not vote.)

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood agreed with Insko that gang-related graffiti is a real concern.

“Tagging has been a problem for some years, in the Chapel Hill and Orange County and Hillsborough and Mebane and surrounding areas of our county” said Blackwood. “And that is, gangs who are tagging territory by putting their symbols up to let everyone know ‘I’ve got control over this ground.’”

That means drug trafficking. And when other gangs start X-ing out the original tags, that, basically, is a declaration of turf war.

Blackwood recalled how the late Robin Britt, best-known as owner of Merritt’s Store & Grill, was forced to deal with that problem at the former site of another one of her businesses.

“Robin ran Britt’s BP on Mt. Carmel Church Road,” said Blackwood. “Well, as soon as that business closed down, and the doors were shut, and the windows were covered over, graffiti tagging started to occur on that building. And we went to Robin, and we said ‘Hey, look, we’ve got some tagging going on. We want to cover that up.’

“And so she had somebody immediately go out an pressure wash and take that stuff off. The quicker we let them know we’re not going to tolerate it, the quicker we get it off of these buildings and properties, the better off the community stands.”

Even when it comes to the stupidest, least threatening forms of graffiti, the cleanup is annoying and expensive for business owners.

For the past five years, David Yu has owned the Gourmet Kingdom restaurant on Carrboro’s Main Street.

Both he and his neighbor Carquest Auto Parts have been repeat victims of graffiti vandalism in recent years. Gourmet Kingdom’s outside walls are immaculately clean right now, while Carquest’s wall facing the parking lot they share is defaced with a few crude tags and an anarchy symbol.

Yu said the last incident at his business was about six months ago. As always, he had it painted over. It costs him around $200 every time. Yu doesn’t even remember what kind of things get spray-painted on his wall. He just calls it “nonsense.”

He said he likes what little he’s heard about the bill.

“That’s good,” he said. “That protects the business. It’s just a better way to regulate this kind of nonsense.”

In the Senate, HB552 passed 40-9.

District 23 Sen. Valerie Foushee, a Democrat from Hillsborough, voted against HB552.

“This whole school-to-prison pipeline is really concerning to me,” said Foushee. “And when I saw what this bill was really going to do, it just made it apparent to me that we are making felonies out of many situations where I think we need to do some other work.”

That work, she said, should include providing more educational and employment opportunities for young people at risk.

Foushee added that she’s also worried that penalty changes are being made without recommendations from the Sentencing Commission.

According to a fiscal impact study attached to the bill, it will cost the Department of Public Safety Prison Section up to $3,500 for each active sentence imposed.

And there are no assumptions on the deterrent effect of HB552, or its impact on prison population.

It all begs the question: Why not just make graffiti artists clean up their own messes? Wouldn’t that save taxpayers and business owners a lot of money, while teaching a valuable lesson to young offenders?

Insko said she likes that idea. So did Blackwood.

“You’re reading my mind,” said Blackwood. “That’s part of a pre-arrest diversion program we’re looking at.”