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Audit and Finance considers Code Department’s present, with an eye toward the future

Thursday, October 22, 2020 by Jo Clifton

When City Council members voted to reduce the Austin Police Department budget, they promised to reassign some duties police have previously handled, but it was not clear which departments would take up those burdens. However, at least some Council members were considering the Austin Code Department to take over some law enforcement jobs.

Last week, Council approved a resolution sponsored by Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Paige Ellis, Greg Casar and Leslie Pool “to identify and implement improvements to the Austin Code Department, and to identify relevant budget and fee amendments to reimagine public safety,” with the help of that department.

According to the resolution, 50.8 percent of all APD 911 calls between January 2017 and July 2020 were designated as “Priority 3 calls, where there is no risk to property or life.” Although support for the resolution was unanimous, it is not clear how many duties Council will end up transferring to Code. Council Member Kathie Tovo said she wasn’t sure she could support giving the department more to do.

It became clear at Wednesday’s Audit & Finance Committee meeting that the department, which has led the effort to seek compliance with Covid-19 regulations since this spring, has faced serious challenges in its regular duties. In particular, Council expressed dissatisfaction with Code’s enforcement of the repeat offender rental program, while discussing the city audit of that program.

Council Member Alison Alter said, “We’ve added a lot of resources and there’s still a question about whether we’re getting the effectiveness” they were seeking from the department.

One of the critical findings of the auditor’s report was the Code Department’s failure to place any properties in suspension due to a landlord’s failure to repair important health and safety items for tenants.

In June, Austin Code did finally place one property in suspension and notified five others that they would be suspended if they failed to come into compliance. Since then, Austin Code has suspended the licenses of eight other properties.

As reported in the Austin Monitor in September, auditors wrote, “It appears known issues have not been proactively addressed by Code management. While completing this audit, we received a draft copy of an evaluation of Austin Code, including the Repeat Offender Program, conducted by Austin Code internal staff. This evaluation identified many of the same issues detailed in this report, in addition to several others. This report was communicated to Code management in August 2019, and it was finalized in April 2020.”

José Roig, interim director of the department, told committee members that the internal report offered many of the same recommendations as the audit.

City Auditor Corrie Stokes noted that her office received a special request from Council members Ellis, Alter, Flannigan and Pool asking her to “review Austin Code inspection data for the last several years in order to answer” certain questions. Those include questions about the types of code violations investigated by the department, the number of full-time employees assigned to investigate each type of violation, the number of inspections that take place each year, and how the data compare to data from peer cities.

The Council members also wanted to know how the Code Department determined a daily goal of five inspections per day and what processes are used to reach that goal. The final question relates to what barriers may be keeping the department from achieving peak efficiency.

Stokes said her staff was working as quickly as possible and would have information, but not recommendations, in mid-November.

In the meantime, Flannigan, Alter, Ellis, Tovo, Pool and perhaps others will be working on a plan to meet as a committee, either as part of the Public Safety Committee or the Audit & Finance Committee, or both, to talk about what the Code Department might be able to do on the public safety front.

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