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Audit finds Parks Department lax in managing safety hazards

Friday, February 7, 2014 by Michael Kanin

City Auditor Ken Mory reported to Council members Wednesday that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department “is not effectively managing hazards related to patron safety” and, further noted that “there is limited assurance that hazards identified are corrected promptly.”


Mory’s finding was part of an audit of the efficacy of the department’s ability to “identify, address, and mitigate risks to patron safety.” At least one slip and fall incident brought on a lawsuit from one parks patron in 2012. (See Austin Monitor, Nov. 14, 2012)


PARD Director Sara Hensley told the committee that at least part of the issue was thanks to a lack of resources. “For the last three years, I’ve asked for a safety officer position,” she said. “I have one safety person in our department for 600 full-time people and up to 1,500 part-time and seasonal.”


Though the Parks department spent $800,000 less in FY2013 than was budgeted for their needs – thanks to what city staff characterized as “electrical cost increases not materializing as anticipated” – Hensley and her team cannot put those funds back into use in FY2014. City budget policy returns the total surplus for all departments, a $14.2 million sum (as the Monitor reported yesterday), to the General Fund.


Still, it’s not clear whether a single safety officer would solve the issue. Assistant City Auditor Niki Raggi offered Council members what she put as a “clarification” of what became repeated calls for that official. “I wanted to make sure that it is clear: The majority of the time of that person is dedicated to occupational health and safety matters.”


Among other findings, the audit noted that facility “safety inspections are not consistently conducted, documented and monitored as required.” Auditors found that 52 of 99 city playgrounds “received an audit by a certified playground inspector in FY2013.”


Auditors also reported that “2 of 118 staffed PARD facilities in FY2013 received a comprehensive safety audit by the Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator.”


According to the document, “the city’s Child Care ordinance requires that each facility that hosts recreational programs undergo an annual safety inspection.”


Though the report did find that at least some city recreation centers receive some level of safety inspection, “the results of these inspections are not provided to the Occupational Health and Safety Coordinator and there is not a system to ensure that division managers receive and review inspection results.”


Further, the audit notes that “PARD does not have a central database for all incidents or injuries that occur at PARD facilities” and that “summary annual inspection data are not reported to executive management.”


Other significant findings include the fact that “there is no mechanism to ensure that once identified, hazards are actually corrected.”


For his part, PARD facilities administrator Tony Arnold told Council members that, though the audit found his department had neglected to conduct annual inspections, it had indeed performed them. “During the audit we were transferring from a paper-based system to a computerized system,” Arnold said. “There was a loss of information in the data between the two. All of our playgrounds are inspected every single year.”


Later Raggi also disputed that claim. “We did see that the regular inspection – the maintenance type of inspection – does occur…but as far as the annual safety audit,” Raggi said that it had not happened regularly for the past four years.


Mory’s recommendation was a broad one. “In order to ensure that PARD has a system in place to provide reasonable assurance that patron safety risks are identified and addressed (in a) timely (fashion), the Director should allocate necessary skills and resources to appropriately implement the PARD safety program and monitor its effectiveness.”


As she began her remarks to the committee, Hensley noted the frequency of her visits to the body. “Let me just say this: We do agree with the report,” she said. “We find this, as I’ve said before – I feel like I am a regular, you might as well put me on about every three months – that we look at this as a positive thing.”


She continued to frame the general predicament of her department. “We are in an uphill battle with aging infrastructure – and this isn’t just playgrounds – and with trying to staff safety and security in trying to monitor these.”


Hensley’s department is perennially strapped for cash. Indeed, it took the efforts of a well-organized citizen campaign to add just $4.75 million to PARD’s FY2013 budget.


In addition to her need for a safety officer, Hensley pointed to the harsh Texas sun, which she said takes as many as nine years off the life of playground equipment.

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