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Audit highlights inefficiencies at cultural centers

Thursday, August 20, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Inefficient operations and a lack of strategic direction have threatened the city’s ability to provide for an increase in cultural opportunities for city residents, according to an extensive audit unveiled by the Office of the City Auditor during the City Council Audit & Finance Committee meeting Wednesday.

The audit, which Council requested in 2019, required numerous hours of work from auditor staff. The result was detailed criticism and recommendations related to the city’s cultural centers ranging from strategic planning to maintenance and accessibility to failure to collect Council-approved fees at the facilities.

Auditors looked at operations at the Asian American Resource Center; the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center; the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center; the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility; the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex; and the Mexic-Arte Museum. The Parks and Recreation Department manages most of these, although the Economic Development Department oversees the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility, the Mexic-Arte Museum is managed by a nonprofit and ASM Global, a for-profit company, manages the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex.

Although a lack of funding was certainly part of the reason maintenance at the facilities has not kept up with needs, auditors found that even though the parks department hired a new ADA compliance coordinator in December, no timeline had been established for addressing many of the remaining ADA issues identified in 2016.

Auditors found that the total estimated cost of outstanding maintenance items ranged from about $150 at the Asian American Resource Center to more than $380,000 at the MACC and more than $700,000 at the Carver Museum. The majority of the costs associated with the MACC relate to two 80-ton chillers for air conditioning that need to be replaced. According to the auditors, PARD staff said the issues would be addressed “as resources become available,” but there is no timeline for when that might happen.

“The slow response to center maintenance needs may result in injury to patrons and increase future maintenance costs due to neglect. In addition, community stakeholders may perceive that the city does not care about maintaining its cultural centers,” the audit states.

Auditors also reported that the cultural centers faced a number of problems using their available space and staff members were not using software available to help them allocate their space. The report also found that all of the cultural centers have different operating hours and that at least 20 percent of center usage occurred outside of regular business hours. For example, 27 percent of usage of the Asian American Resource Center was outside regular business hours as was 43 percent of the usage of the Mexican American Cultural Center.

At the African American Cultural Heritage Facility, auditors found that 88 percent of the usage occurred outside operating hours. In addition, auditors warned that because the facility allows users to have access without the presence of staff, there is a risk of legal liability for the city. The Economic Development Department, which manages this facility, agreed with each of the audit’s recommendations.

Although “PARD has established a formal process to develop programming for the cultural centers in alignment with each center’s mission,” auditors noted that there was inconsistent implementation of the program planning process. “Based on our review, centers have not consistently held community engagement sessions to gather input for the following year’s program.”

Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley and her staff, along with Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, deputy director of the Economic Development Department, indicated that their departments would work to implement stronger planning processes and address maintenance needs on a more timely basis.

Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, has been a strong advocate for keeping up with maintenance needs, not just at cultural and recreational facilities, but at all city facilities. Alter noted that city facilities have over $300 million in deferred maintenance needs. She added, “I want to be clear that PARD is working with very limited dollars to address these needs. … As we’re making decisions moving forward and deciding where the dollars go,” Council needs to remember that its decisions have “real consequences and have real effects on people’s lives.”

Finally, auditors said, “We also identified various operational issues which impacted the effectiveness of service delivery to the community at cultural centers. We performed a peer city review and found that nonprofits run the majority of similar city-owned centers, and the majority have a department-level arts and culture agency.” Austin does not have such a department and its arts and culture activities reside in the Economic Development Department.

Alter and Mayor Steve Adler both indicated an interest in further researching the question of whether the city should continue to run the cultural centers or whether it would be preferable to have a nonprofit do that job. Adler observed that a nonprofit runs the Mexic-Arte, but has been struggling to come up with the funding it needs for expansion.

In addition to City Auditor Corrie Stokes, members of the audit team included audit manager Neha Sharma, auditor-in-charge Henry Katumwa and co-auditors-in-charge Matthew Clifton, Kathie Harrison, Kate Murdock and Tyler Myers.

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