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Code budget talk quickly turns to STRs

Tuesday, August 11, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council managed to tear through budget presentations for seven city departments yesterday. Of those, the Code Department seemed to bear the lion’s share of scrutiny, with the promise of more to come.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this part of the budget doesn’t come back several times over the course of the next weeks, only because of the attention it is getting in the community right now,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

Speaking directly to Code Department Director Carl Smart, Adler said that there was a desire to see “more ambitious goals” in the department in terms of response to and detection of problems. But on Monday, most of the questions homed in on the city’s short-term rental program.

Council will take a closer look at the issue at this Thursday’s regular meeting, but the budget session got the point across that some Council members aren’t too happy about the current state of affairs. Smart didn’t sound that thrilled himself.

Smart said that, right now, his department has two inspectors and one administrative position dedicated to short-term rentals. To that, they’ve added about two temporary administrative support positions to help with STR enforcement.

“The STR program – the demand is a lot higher than we expected. Starting out, it wasn’t. … But now, we’ve gotten into (STR license) renewals. Originally, we were just doing licensing and registration and checking advertising and doing occasional inspections, but now the activity is very high,” said Smart.

Additionally, said Smart, the current STR fees of $235 per year are not covering city costs, even with the initial $50 noticing fee. He said that number was “really going to need to be adjusted” and anticipated he would soon be before Council asking for an increase in those fees.

Council Member Sheri Gallo suggested a redistribution of staff to the areas in the department that demand the most attention, and made the point that short-term rentals currently make up a disproportionate per-employee amount of work in terms of licensing.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo agreed and said that reallocating staff might be a better first step than asking for more staff. Smart said that was something his department had done, temporarily, but there was still an increasing demand on neighborhood inspectors, who have to deal with the more than 17,000 311 complaints that come in annually in addition to their other duties.

“There’s such a demand for code services right now,” said Smart. “Part of it is our own fault. Because we’ve been marketing, we’ve been doing more public information, now that we have a team to do that. Folks are more aware of code violations in the neighborhood, and they are calling.

“Short-term rentals are really a hot issue right now, but there are other hot issues, too,” said Smart.

Code is also asking for eight additional full-time employees and one transfer, including three new inspectors. Smart noted that the new positions would help keep response times down, as would the addition of a dispatcher who will coordinate inspectors.

Council Member Leslie Pool pointed out that a three-day average turnaround between the time an issue is reported to code and the time that the department first responds is “absolutely insufficient” in some cases. Pool wondered if there couldn’t be some kind of SWAT category for some inspections, that could be paired with the Austin Police Department.

“Especially in those cases where we have dangerous circumstances or a party house, we really need to bring the most authority to that visit as we possibly can,” said Pool.

Smart said that the preliminary results of a July STR pilot program seemed to show as much. He said the quick, authoritative response was “very effective” and that they were looking into how to do something like that longer-term.

Gallo said that the PACE team experiment showed her that the city needs Code Department employees who work night hours. She noted that short-term rentals were “all nice and quiet” before 10 p.m., but found a different scenario in the middle of the night.

“I think sometimes it’s not necessarily adding more staff, but it’s making sure that the staff hours that they are working correspond to when the problems are happening,” said Gallo. “Nights and weekends are when they are happening.”

Tovo and Council Member Greg Casar also had questions about the city’s repeat-offender program, specifically whether it needed further revision to accurately track repeat offenders and problem properties in the city. In July, as reported by the Austin Monitor, a UT Austin report said the city is failing to identify and monitor dangerous properties and lacks the tools needed to address dangerous conditions at “repeat offender” properties.

“We’re concerned about the program,” said Smart, who said that recommendations about the program are on the way, and he would most likely be suggesting changes to it in the near future. He noted that the program is still in its infancy and remains reactive. Running down the criteria, Smart said that a lot of properties that should be in the program are not because they do not meet those criteria.

Adler ended the meeting saying that it was important for the department to meet higher goals, but asked that they articulate whether it was necessary for the department to have more resources to do that.

“I think the will may exist on the Council to make sure you have the tools to set and achieve higher goals,” said Adler. “Even if that means coming back to the Council and saying, ‘This is what I need.’”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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