Report: Austin dragged feet with audit recommendations

Austin City Council (KXAN)
Austin City Council (KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The city auditor has found, after revisiting recommendations it made over the past few years, Austin has lagged in addressing some “high risk” issues.

The findings come in a recent three-year, “follow-up” audit, which the city auditor does as a sort of check up on previous recommendations.

The January audit also found a few city departments still have not finished implementing recommendations from years past, including the review of a water-billing process, strategic IT plans and improvement of cemetery sales oversight.

“The analysis of the report shows that it took about 5 months longer, on average, than expected to implement our recommendations,” auditors noted in the report. “Not addressing the issues identified in audits in a timely manner leaves the City exposed to risks.”

Bill Oakey, blog writer at austinaffordability.com and a city critic, said the audit raises “some red flags that are broad-based.”

“Every day that an auditor’s recommendations is delayed results in more inefficiency and the potential for more expense,” Oakey said. “The city has an unfortunate history of not following up on issues that are brought to their attention in a timely manner.”

Overall, city departments have enacted the majority of the auditor’s original recommendations and did so in a timely manner, according to the audit.

City spokesman Bryce Bencivengo said he could not comment on why the recommendations took longer than expected for certain departments. So, KXAN contacted the departments noted in the audit.

Information technology

In October of 2013, auditors recommended the city create a strategic plan for “IT governance” and planning, and develop a citywide communications plan.

The 2016 audit says the city still has not implemented an IT strategic plan or citywide communications plan, which are intended to ensure the city effectively uses IT to achieve its goals.

Paul Cook, a senior business process consultant with Austin, said the city has been working to create an IT strategic plan, but the rapid pace of change in technology has provided a “constant drumbeat of shifting priorities and focus.”

“We are making progress, but it is taking a lot longer than we thought,” Cook said. “It is tough to remember why you were draining the swamp, when you are knee-deep in alligators.”

Aside from the audit, KXAN has reported on the city’s struggles with upgrading technology.

In January, KXAN obtained numerous comments from frustrated city employees asking the city to move away from paper-based systems. Namely, city employees urged management to adopt electronic time sheets. The city has used the same paper time sheet system for the past 17 years.

You can read about the time sheets here.

Water billing

A 2014 audit found Austin Energy could improve meter reading accuracy for water utility customers and improve the review of “system-flagged reads.”

Austin Energy oversees billing for Austin Water Utility. The energy utility agreed with the 2014 audit recommendations, and the utility stated it planned to implement those improvements by November 30, 2014.

But the 2016 audit found that recommendation still has not been fully implemented.

Austin Energy Spokesman Carlos Cordova said the utility had “implemented all recommendations from the 2014 audit,” but it would “simply require more time to capture the monitoring of changes.”

The findings in the audit have no impact on customer water bills, and the utility has meter reading accuracy of 99.6 percent, Cordova added.

Cemetery and sales and administration

In November of 2014, city auditors found a “general lack of oversight of sales and revenue collection by the Cemetery Operations Group.” The deficient oversight caused inaccuracies in processing of burial space sales … recording to financial transactions and improper cash handling practices,” including a violation of the city’s cash handling policy.

In 2014, auditors recommended changes to address those problems, but the latest report shows those changes are yet to be fully implemented. Work is still needed to ensure proper administrative oversight, and vacant positions still need to be filled to make sure there is adequate supervision.

An official with the Parks Department, which oversees the cemeteries, did not immediately respond for comment. We will update this story as more information becomes available.

Auditors acknowledged that overly technical recommendations, lack of detailed information, varied expectations and city-staff turnover can be obstacles for departments working to complete recommended tasks.

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