The department charged with policing overgrown grass, short-term rentals and illegally discarded junk fails to follow a consistent protocol for overseeing violations and does not enforce violations with equal fervor on city-owned property, reads a report by the City of Austin auditor. In a review of 306 code complaints, the auditor took issue with 77 percent of them.
“Code violation investigation, documentation, and resolution practices vary across cases, due to a lack of management oversight,” writes the Office of the City Auditor. “Inconsistency may also result from gaps in procedural guidance provided to field staff.”
The issues pointed out in this audit, writes the auditor, mirror those brought to light in a 2010 audit.
Austin Code Department spokesperson Candice Cooper says the findings in this audit are no surprise to her department.
“As a matter of fact, we were aware of some of the challenges that were discussed in the audit and, [for] some of them we’ve already completed several tasks related to making sure that those findings are addressed,” she says.
The audit documents missteps taken while working through each part of a code complaint. The auditor writes that in roughly half of the 306 reviewed complaints, residents in violation never received official notices. After a complaint comes in, the department requires that an initial inspection be scheduled or completed within two business days. According to the audit, that deadline was met only 49 percent of the time.
Residents were also given varying deadlines to correct the same violation.
“[C]itizens were given different deadlines ranging from 7 to 30 days to correct work without permit violations,” writes the auditor. According to the report, deadlines historically fall to the discretion of staff in attempts to provide better customer service.
Cooper says Austin’s rapid growth is one major factor in the department’s inability to keep up with the work at hand. In the past five years, the department has nearly doubled its staff (from 69 full-time employees to 117), according to a memo from Director Carl Smart to the auditor. At the onset of budget season, the department will be looking to fund more positions.
“Part of this process is looking at our unmet needs as it relates to personnel and technology,” says Cooper.
The auditor also detailed less extensive review of violations on city-owned property – raising the question of preferential treatment for land run by the city. In 42 percent of cases involving city property, code staff did not visit the site or photograph alleged infractions – as policy requires. The auditor also noted delayed investigations of city-owned property.
“For example, one citizen complained that lights from a large festival were causing a nuisance,” the audit reads. “The inspector did not start the investigation until more than a month later, at which point the complaint was dismissed because the festival was no longer occurring.”
While the department has the power to notify other city departments of violations, they do not have the ability to carry out enforcement against government entities (including, the city itself). To combat this, the Code Department is part of a task force that includes the City Manager’s Office and the Office of Real Estate and Building Services to figure out the best way to ensure the city’s own properties remain up to code.
This most recent audit of the code department will go in front of some Council members at today’s meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee.