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Audit finds room for “significant” improvement at Code Compliance

Monday, March 29, 2010 by Michael Kanin

Failure by the city’s Code Compliance Department (CCD) to follow its own rules has led to “inconsistent and inequitable treatment across cases,” according to an audit released last week.


Insufficient documentation, the auditors said, could mean that “CCD may not be able to … document compliance with requirements established by federal, state and city mandates.” They made their report to the Council Audit and Finance Committee.


The findings were part of a report from the Office of the City Auditor detailing four broad categories under which it says the department can improve its services. The findings come with seven specific recommendations, all of which have been agreed to by the department’s staff. Auditors acknowledged that though CCD had made improvements, much remained to be done.


“The audit itself stands on what we were presented,” City Auditor Kenneth Mory told In Fact Daily. “Obviously there are some issues that need to be addressed and some of them are significant.”


“We did see a lot of good things in place there,” added Assistant City Auditor Corrie Stokes. “But we didn’t see a consistency in making sure” that CCD’s policies and procedures “were being followed.”


“These departures from policy undermine (the code compliance department’s) mission,” according to the report.


Auditors also found problems with the department’s response to complaints received by the Solid Waste Services call center. According to the report, a portion of those calls never made it to the CCD or were otherwise not handled properly by call center staff.


The audit also singled out the department’s data reporting system. That application, used to track property abatement cases, had, according to the report, “limitations …that impacted data quality and information retrieval.”


In their last finding, auditors suggested that CCD “should consider using available tools to improve the coverage of code compliance issues.” These include offering “tenant and property owner assistance,” a more proactive approach to code enforcement that would “(improve) neighborhood quality of life through code enforcement,” escalating penalties for repeated non-code-compliance, and a rental inspection program that could “mandate systematic housing inspection” that would target “the neighborhoods and communities that are most at risk for substandard housing.” 


The audit’s seven recommendations included:


§       suggestions for more comprehensive monitoring and training of CCD staff

§       an update of the department’s policies and procedures that would specifically mention the importance of “keeping accurate data” and a direction to work with Austin’s Office of Communications and Technology Management to find a system that could integrate the IT side of Dangerous Buildings and Housing, Zoning Code Compliance, and Property Abatement case management.

§       directions for a uniform response for “parking in yard” complaints

§       instructions for CCD to work with the city Law Department to determine whether tenant complaints could be passed directly on to the City of Austin   Housing Authority; and

§       a request that CCD work with its assistant city manager, currently Howard Lazarus, to establish “a team to evaluate practices in other cities to determine what approaches will be beneficial in Austin.” 


Each of these came with a proposed implementation date and the name and phone number of the city official who would be responsible for that corrective phase. Judging by the dates given, CCD seems able to implement changes that would correct much of the auditors’ negative findings by the end of the 2010 calendar year.


At the hearing, Council Member Bill Spelman asked CCD Director Willie Rhodes to check in at the next Audit and Finance Committee meeting with a more specific timetable.


Rhodes reiterated that his department agreed with the recommendations in the audit. “We’ve been operating like this for 5-6 years now,” he told In Fact Daily via email. “It’s logical to take the next step and implement these recommendations.”

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