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Audit says PARD needs more data, money

Friday, September 9, 2016 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department may not be able to continue to provide services that citizens expect, and it faces the prospect of either cutting back on services or finding more funding in order to ensure the department’s long-term sustainability, according to a draft of an audit conducted by the Office of the City Auditor.

The problems outlined in the audit include ineffective data collection, a lack of reliable data collection programs and failure to communicate effectively on decisions made throughout the department.

The audit states that the department has insufficient resources to maintain its facilities, leading to “significant year-end backlogs of uncompleted work orders.” In addition, “work orders were sometimes canceled without documenting the business justification for the cancellation, which may lead to increased safety risks and/or extended facility closures.”

According to departmental policy, a priority one – or emergency maintenance – issue is supposed to be dealt with in four hours. However, the auditors found that maintenance problems represented “a worsening situation.” The audit states: “the average time to complete a priority one (emergency) service request was 24 hours in Fiscal Year 2014 and 43 hours in FY 2015. Also, it took an average of 12 days for staff to complete a priority three service request in FY 2014 and 24 days in FY 2015.”

According to the audit, the current tools used to collect and store program information are ineffective. Auditors noted that “PARD does not maintain a complete list of all programs actually provided,” but information given to the Council during the budget development process showed that the department could offer as many as 400 programs.

Auditors noted that some key program details, particularly in the youth sports programs, are not tracked at all. There was a question as to whether the Parks and Recreation Department staff actually knew which children had been in their custody for given programs on what days.

But not all the news was bad. The auditors noted that although the audit was related to resource allocation, “throughout this audit we observed numerous interactions between PARD staff and the community. Notably, PARD staff appear to be dedicated employees, committed to providing good customer service to the communities they serve, and passionate about their work and the mission of the department.”

Auditors also cited problems with keeping track of whether a child’s parents had paid for the child to attend the programs. Also, the audit said, “determining if a specific child was in PARD custody after the fact is virtually impossible.”

Given that it is impossible to determine which programs have the best attendance, because such records are not kept, staff cannot effectively assess programs to help the department decide which programs to keep, expand, reduce or cancel, the audit found.

It was clear that the department is losing money consistently on a variety of programs. Auditors reported that “not all attendees pay for the services they receive and many who did made late payments with no consequence.”

Auditors offered two examples of FY 2014 program costs and fees received. The cost to operate the youth cheerleading program is $59 per person, and the proposed city subsidy is 50 percent. The fee to be charged after the subsidy is $29.50, but the department was charging only $20 per person at a loss of $9.50 per participant. Based on a maximum enrollment of 40 people for each youth cheerleading class, the city lost $380 on each class. The same type of analysis was done for adult indoor volleyball, which showed the city losing $4,288 per class. Both programs are “offered many times each year with the same financial gap occurring with each offering,” according to the audit.

There were similar problems with payments for afterschool programs. Although parents are supposed to pay for the programs before they start, the auditors reported that 30 of 40 attendees of a particular program did not pay before it started, “and some payments were made after the program ended.”

Looking at the youth basketball program, auditors said that 62 of 71 attendees paid to participate in the program. “Without additional funding allocations and improved management of program fees, some existing parks and recreation services, as well as facilities, will need to be reduced if the city wishes to continue assessing fees that do not recover the costs of services from program participants,” auditors noted.

In the department’s response to the audit, PARD Director Sara Hensley wrote, “The Department is in agreement with the report findings and recommendations and our staff is working diligently on proposed solutions.”

In addition to specific recommendations concerning utilizing a comprehensive program management system – which the department has already begun to implement, according to Hensley – the audit recommended that the PARD director:

  • “Initiate a policy discussion with City Council and the city manager to determine how to offer an appropriate balance of PARD services, given funding” constraints;
  • “Perform a sustainability analysis and make adjustments to programs, services and facilities that better align to decisions made in that policy discussion; and
  • “Better align fees to recover costs of operating programs and services while still providing financial assistance to those who qualify.”
  • PARD agreed, and in Hensley’s letter responding to the audit, she said, “to date, PARD has worked with partners and consultants to gather information pertinent to facility and service allocation that will help inform the policy discussion.”

    Hensley told the Austin Monitor via email, “Honestly, our statement in the Draft version is exactly correct. While we do have a couple of items to work and focus on, there is definitely a funding/resource gap.”

    According to the proposed FY 2016-2017 budget, the department will have just two more full-time equivalent employees for the upcoming year than it has now. The department’s overall budget is projected at $94,892,828, compared to the current year’s budget, which is $87,212,375. More than 85 percent of that funding comes from the city’s General Fund.

    The audit was scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee on Thursday. However, that meeting was canceled to allow Council members to attend the memorial service for Officer Amir Abdul-Khaliq, who was critically injured while escorting a funeral procession last week. He died Sunday. The draft audit appeared as backup for the meeting.

    Photo by laterjay made available through a Creative Commons license.

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