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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, September 23, 2021 by Jo Clifton
PARD needs more funding, audit update shows
Since audits in 2016 and 2017, the Parks and Recreation Department has taken actions to address the management of its resources as well as cash handling problems. However, according to a follow-up report by the Office of the City Auditor, the city’s “funding priorities may continue to constrain the department’s ability to effectively offer its current wide range of services.”
Members of the Council Audit & Finance Committee heard new details at Wednesday’s committee meeting about the major challenges the parks department is dealing with in managing the many programs and functions it oversees. Committee members also heard about progress the department has made in some areas, particularly cash management.
Audit manager Katie Houston told the committee that PARD staff implemented policies to decrease the amount of cash employees are required to handle. In the initial audit, auditors found several issues that increased the risk that PARD could have been missing some revenue. In their status report, auditors found that PARD has revised its policies and the department now maintains a single list of all cash handlers, and ensures that those employees receive cash handling training every year.
PARD has also collaborated with the Transportation Department to increase the number of pay stations that accept cash and credit cards at city pools. Although Barton Springs is the only pool currently charging for entry, four of six municipal pools reviewed by auditors confirmed that pay stations had been installed on the premises. In addition, PARD has developed a phone app called ATX Swims, allowing swimmers to pay for entry on their phones.
During the original audit, the audit staff found that PARD’s internal process for allocating resources was not only ineffective, but did not provide what auditors called “a basis for strategic department-wide decision-making.” They cited external factors including aging infrastructure, funding constraints and “pressure to provide many different low-cost programs to a large, varied customer base.” Auditors also found a large backlog of facility maintenance service requests and that maintenance was not being performed on a timely basis.
One of PARD’s biggest problems has been the lack of a comprehensive program management system. Parks Director Kimberly McNeeley told the committee she had been disappointed to learn that there was not an affordable off-the-shelf software product that they could use. As a result, the department has been working with the city’s Office of Performance Management and the Communications and Technology Management Department in developing such software. A parks department spokesperson told the Austin Monitor the department is currently using Excel spreadsheets, but they can only look at one facility at a time using that method.
Although PARD staff has presented options to Council for making high-cost services such as aquatics more sustainable, auditors said Council has not allocated sufficient funding for the plan. Noting that Council allocated $40 million of bond money for improvements to Givens, Northwest and Montopolis pools and for the development of a new aquatics center at Colony Park in 2018, that amount is inadequate. According to the audit, the Aquatic Master Plan says that “the capital costs necessary to improve the entire aquatics system range from $152 million-$193 million. It will likely cost the city at least $8 million-$10 million per year for the next 20 years to implement all recommended improvements.” Auditors noted that, of course, the parks department will probably not be able to generate that amount of funding from new or current revenue sources.
Council Member Alison Alter, who chairs the committee, told her colleagues the audit report confirms that the parks department does not have the resources necessary to meet the needs of a growing city. “I think what this document does is really underscore that we have work ahead of us to increase our financial allocation for PARD and I really don’t think that business-as-usual is going to work anymore.” She said she had worked to find new ways to expand PARD funding, adding, “I intend to invest energy in finding new ways to increase funding.”
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee: a sub-group of the Austin City Council. It's members are charged with oversight of city fiscal operations and anything that falls under the purview of the Office of the City Auditor.
City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.
Office of the City Auditor: This city department is created by the city's charter in order to establish and ensure "accountability transparency, and a culture of continuous improvement in city operations."