Friday, August 7, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Auditor to report on budget scrutiny options

In response to a request from Mayor Steve Adler, City Auditor Corrie Stokes and her team are preparing a report on how the City Council could scrutinize the budgets of various city departments and their programs throughout the year.

In a memo to Stokes, Adler wrote, “A department and program review process would be outside the budget development calendar and the goal would be to identify potential opportunities” to improve service, check whether programs were meeting their objectives and “impact the annual operating budget through reduced costs and/or increased efficiencies in revenues.”

Stokes told the Austin Monitor that although the word “sunset” was used, she did not believe the city would be headed toward a true sunset review process like the state performs but would be focused on a “deep dig” into departmental programs and their costs.

One important question, of course, is how much such a process would cost the city.

Stokes says her staff is working on the report, and she expects it to be completed by the end of August. They are reviewing programs in other cities that have a city manager form of government, with particular emphasis on Dallas and Portland, Oregon.

The auditor’s office conducts performance audits of various city programs as well as investigative audits when the need arises. However, auditors do not routinely do in-depth audits of entire departments, Stokes said.

The last time that Austin’s auditors conducted a review of an entire department was 2006, when they did an in-depth look at the Austin Police Department with the help of an outside consultant, Stokes said. That cost the department about $200,000 but came up with many recommendations. She said she believes that most of those recommendations have been implemented.

But that was very different from what the department normally does. For example, from April through September of this year, auditors have been looking at 17 different audit areas, including the Austin Code Department, to see whether there is consistency in interpretation, investigation and resolution of code compliance questions. They are also looking at the Parks and Recreation Department to evaluate allocation of resources for park facilities and programs by Council district.

Auditors are evaluating city efforts to ensure the safety of dams, bridges and other critical infrastructure and conducting a risk assessment of inventory management practices to identify which specific areas should be audited. They are also conducting a purchasing-card audit “in a selected high-risk area” and evaluating the effectiveness of Austin Energy’s weatherization program as compared to industry practices, according to the department’s audit plan for this fiscal year.

As for the report looking at how other cities analyze budget questions on a departmental level, the Dallas model would seem to be particularly important.

Dallas is using the state sunset review process as a model for its program, Stokes said. That starts with a self-evaluation by each department. According to documents found online, this review process started in Fiscal Year 2014-15, with the city manager’s office in charge. The Dallas program uses existing staff from its budget office and cross-departmental teams. Their goal is to look at seven to 10 departments or offices per year on a five-year rotation, according to their written documents.

Under the Dallas model, departments submit self-evaluation reports, and the cross-departmental teams complete the process and make recommendations to Council.

Within the next week, Stokes said, her department will issue a report on performance evaluations for Council appointees. Those appointees include the auditor, city manager, city clerk and the municipal court clerk, she said.

That, too, was requested by Adler. Stokes noted that any member of Council can request that the auditor’s team answer specific questions, although such projects are typically limited to what can be done in 200 hours or less of auditor time.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.

Mayor Steve Adler: Mayor of the city of Austin, elected in November 2014

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