Audit: Austin Code Dept. violations may affect community safety

Picture taken by Austin Code while serving a search warrant.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An audit of the Austin Code Department found delays in investigating violations may be putting public safety at risk. City Council members expressed serious concerns after learning there were issues in 77 percent of the cases tested.

The pitfalls of the department were presented Monday to the Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee. The audit details the code violations perpetrated by the Austin Code Department. Namely, the “lack of management oversight” in consistencies when looking into a variety of code cases.

CODE VIOLATIONS: Oct. 2012- March 2016

  • 72,515: Austin 311 reported violations
  • 66,247: Code investigations
  • 239: Community cleanups

“There were several things that came as a surprise in this audit. And I think one of the things is that we’re not responding to complaints as quickly as we ought to,” said Carl Smart, the Director of Austin Code Compliance.

Austin Code said it’s goal it to respond to complaints within two days. But right now, the average wait time is three and a half days, if not more.
Smart said is simply not acceptable. He said the department is not keeping up with the city’s growth, pointing to staffing and technology as the main issues, along with proper management oversight.

Reporting inconsistencies

The department’s identification of code violations within City-owned properties also varied from the defined policies, according to the audit. The varying violations reported allowed some cases of code defiance to persist, which could poses a risk to the community’s safety.

Additionally the audit looks at a lack of prioritizing high-risk complaints. Currently, there is not a process to move cases that may pose a threat to the public to the highest priority.

Staff’s lack of qualifications

The audit went on to note that some members of the Code Department’s staff and management teams do not meet the minimum job qualifications. Workers who do not meet the department’s requirements lead to a rising number of deviations in code enforcement.

According to auditors, 36 percent of field staff and management do not meet the minimum qualifications. When committee members asked how long it will take to get all code officers in compliance, the director said it could take a couple more years, an answer that did not satisfy committee members.

Smart told KXAN he is confident all of his employees are doing what they need to be doing.

“I am, I am, but I still want to see. I want to see the data, I want to make sure that we’re getting the proper oversight for all of our inspectors,” Smart said.

Code Dept. response

In response to the audit, the Code Department said since 2013 a career plan has been in effect, which specifies certifications and qualifications each code officer must have. They claim ninety percent of their officers have been registered with the state’s Code Enforcement Officers.

The department did admit to a gap in thorough documentation. They noted it is up to each officer to assess code violations, which is an area that needs additional staff training.

Residents are urged to call Austin 311 if they notice a violation in their community.

Austin Code says it will return to Council with an action plan, but it’s too soon to know a specific date.

Austin Code officials say they’re doing a lot with the resources they have. Last fiscal year, the department had more than $18 million and 108 employees. While the budget is similar to several major Texas cities, Austin has the lowest number of employees. San Antonio has 137, Fort Worth has 218 and Dallas has nearly 400 workers.

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