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Audit criticizes city’s historic program management

Tuesday, February 7, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Citing a lack of staff dedicated to the city’s historic preservation program, an outdated fee collection system and inadequate coordination between historic preservation staff and those higher up in the chain of command, the Office of the City Auditor has concluded that the Planning and Zoning Department “is not effectively administering” the historic preservation program.

Auditors noted in a report released Monday that “several stakeholders have expressed concern that due to the city’s rapid growth, many potential historic buildings are being demolished.” Some stakeholders also expressed a fear that, in the future, neighborhoods seeking a local historic district designation would no longer be able to qualify because there would not be enough historic structures still standing to support the designation, auditors said.

They also noted that there are only four full-time-equivalent employees in the historic preservation office and that the office has had 3,200 cases over the past three years. Auditors reported that Austin has the second-highest caseload among cities surveyed.

Of the historic preservation offices in other cities that they reviewed, the auditors found that, on average, those offices had twice as many employees as Austin’s. And even though the department is authorized to have four full-time employees, it currently has only three.

Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey struggled to explain how changing rules from the Human Resources Department had slowed down the hiring process. He also had to explain that the depletion of his CodeNEXT staff was the reason why one member of the historic preservation office was temporarily assigned to perform CodeNEXT work.

In addition, the audit said that some members of the Historic Landmark Commission lack the training they need to make well-informed decisions. As a result of the November election, the commission has two new members who replaced members considered opposed to historic preservation in general, and the city’s programs in particular. So, it is not clear whether the problem was really about lack of education in those two instances.

According to the audit, 90 percent of the 10 commissioners surveyed said they did not receive adequate support from the city’s Law Department, which has generally not staffed HLC meetings. Auditors reported that the majority of entities they surveyed do provide such staffing.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee at Monday’s meeting that he expects legal counsel to start attending the meetings beginning on Feb. 27.

After hearing the report, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told the Austin Monitor, “One element that seeps through all the different areas that were noted is the need for more staff for the historic preservation program – the fact that compared to other programs, ours is understaffed.”

Tovo added that she thinks Council should discuss that issue during budget conversations. “Equally important, though, is when they have the authorization to hire a position, they should hire for it in a more expedient fashion.”

Acting Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven said the position was open and that the department did interviews but could not find the right applicant. The department has now asked Human Resources to repost the position, he said.

Members of the HLC told auditors that they believe the city’s historic designation process is not working as well as it should. “The majority of HLC members reported that the current time frame for providing backup information to the HLC does not give them sufficient time to thoroughly review supporting information for each of the cases prior to making decisions.”

In most cases, they reported that staff provides backup information about 72 hours before their meetings. This, coupled with the large number of cases, “makes doing due diligence on each case extremely difficult,” auditors said. But Sadowsky told the Monitor that the problem is with city regulations, which require a quick release of demolition permits.

Auditors compared Austin’s historic preservation activities with those of 21 other entities, including nine in Texas, and found that Austin differs from a majority of those cities in the following areas: the time frame in which meeting agenda backup information is provided to commission members, legal guidance during commission meetings and commission member qualification requirements.

In addition to these problems, auditors found that its records of fees collected are not consistently maintained. Instead of being entered into the city’s electronic AMANDA system, employees are using paper receipt books to acknowledge receiving fees for various historic preservation activities.

The department’s employees told the auditors that staff delivers the collected fees to the departmental cashier “without another employee matching and confirming the receipts issued to payments received. In addition, the cashier provides no acknowledgment of receipt after the collected fees are delivered,” auditors wrote.

In some cases, auditors found that relevant receipt books were missing and that employees were not consistently issuing receipts and pre-numbered receipt books. Guernsey told members of the Council committee that he is working on getting historic preservation fees into the electronic system.

Neha Sharma, acting assistant city auditor, and Henry Katumwa, supervising senior auditor, worked on the audit and presented it to the committee.

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Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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