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Understaffed Code Compliance chief seeking more employees

Monday, May 21, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Ready or not, Austin’s Code Compliance department was in the spotlight last week after the walkway on a southeast Austin apartment complex collapsed, alerting authorities to multiple dangerous violations there. Code compliance officials were then put in the unhappy position of telling 60 families to evacuate their homes immediately, regardless of whether they had a place to go.


That event left some in the community wondering whether such dangers abound in other complexes that have so far gone undiscovered. If so, that might be because the department simply lacks the workforce to do all it needs to do as soon as it should.


According to new departmental head Carl Smart, the Code Compliance division lags behind its goals in two key performance metrics and needs 10 more employees to beef up enforcement.


As part of a recent budget presentation, Smart cited both the number of cases per inspector (784) and the number of days that it takes the department to respond to a complaint (5.1). He told Council members that those figures were much too high. The department’s goal is to have around 260 cases per inspector. “Ideally, and from the industry standard, that response time should be around two days from the time that we receive the complaint,” Smart continued.


All told, the department is asking for 19 additional employees, 10 for code and nine more that would be hired to work for a former Solid Waste Services program that will be moved to Smart’s department. Together, the new hires would cost an extra $1.4 million. That represents the bulk of the $2 million in additional city funds that Smart is seeking.


“I think the main thing that you’ll see here is that we have increasing demand and there is a real challenge in being able to meet that demand,” said Smart.


Smart inherited the department from one-time Solid Waste Services head Willie Rhodes. Rhodes had been moved to Code Compliance in the wake of a deeply critical report that suggested Solid Waste Services was mismanaged. Rhodes retired last year. Smart has been on the job for roughly nine months.


In an interview with In Fact Daily, Smart said that he hoped that more code compliance badges would help drop response time down to four days. He noted that more field personnel would help the department keep up with demand associated with Austin’s growth. “We’re going to be needing additional officers to keep up with the increasing demand for services as Austin grows,” he said.


As part of his presentation, Smart suggested the implementation of a program he called Code Rangers. Council Member Laura Morrison asked him to explain what it was.


“The Code Ranger program…is basically recruiting, and organizing, and training volunteer citizens to get more actively involved in code compliance,” Smart said. “They would actually identify basic violations in their neighborhood that they can see from the right of way – not going on the private property – and be able to…have a postcard to the resident advising them that they have a problem and requesting that they take care of that problem.”


Such a procedure, Smart argued, could save time and energy by removing basic code compliance cases from the departmental queue. Still, the idea seemed to bring some level of concern from Morrison.


“In theory it sounds great,” she said. “I guess my question would be do you run into problems where you get may be overly enthusiastic rangers?”


Smart affirmed, over audience chuckles, that that could happen. But still the events of last week may add impetus to idea that Austin needs to enlist its citizens to help out with this problem.

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