Understaffing and mismanagement have significantly slowed San Diego’s investigations into sewage leaks, illegal fences, barking dogs and other code violations across the city, according to a new audit released June 9.
The city’s case backlog roughly doubled between January 2018 and January 2021, from 3,178 to 6,306, according to the audit.
The number of cases investigated quickly enough to meet city goals dropped from 64 percent to 56 percent during that time. The drop was steepest (77 percent to 55 percent) for high-priority cases that pose imminent health and safety threats, such as exposed cables and unstable structures.
According to the audit, city code officials are also slow to investigate many cases and issue fines and other penalties that can be critical to achieving compliance.
Some cases are active for more than 600 days without written notice being sent to the property owner involved, and a significant percentage of active cases do not receive follow-up inspections.
The audit also found that San Diego missed opportunities to receive more than $500,000 from property owners by failing to issue required reinspection fees. And almost a third of the cases received no inspection at all.
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The audit attributes the problems to excessive workloads of code enforcement officers, inaccuracies in the way they collect and use data, and the failure of officers and their supervisors to use management tools effectively. of cases paid by the city.
San Diego spends far less per resident on code enforcement efforts than all other major cities in California, the audit found. San Diego spends $6.40 per year per resident, while Sacramento spends $22.80, Long Beach $16.80, and Los Angeles $16.
The results are similar when comparing large California cities for code-compliant staffing. Los Angeles and San Jose have 40 percent more staff per capita, while Long Beach has more than double the staff per capita and Sacramento has more than triple that.
San Diego has 73 full-time employees dedicated to code enforcement at an annual cost of $9 million.
Mayor Todd Gloria’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 would increase those numbers to 90 workers and $11 million. But much of the increase is to cover additional enforcement required by a new city law governing short-term vacation rentals.
On a positive note, the audit found no evidence of bias or racism in code enforcement efforts. “We found no significant relationship between demographic information and fines or response times,” the audit said.
While the number of high-priority cases that met the city’s goal of investigating within one day decreased over the years studied, the majority of those cases were investigated within three days. However, the audit found that 36 high-priority cases went uninvestigated for at least 20 days.
“This indicates that cases can go undetected and violations that potentially threaten health and safety are not always promptly assessed,” the audit said.
The audit also found that the city does not analyze how efficiently it handles investigations in a way that allows for improvements and increased efficiency.
“While supervisors are supposed to identify patterns of missing or late inspections, we found that they lack the necessary reporting from the case management system to do so,” the audit said.
Those issues are related to the less than ideal use of an Accela technology system that tracks the city’s code cases.
“The methodology for calculating code application response time target metrics is incomplete and overstates actual performance by between 13 and 28 percentage points,” the audit said. “In addition, we discovered that several fields in Accela have significant errors and that the code’s application oversight review does not sufficiently ensure the accuracy of the data entered.”
City Auditor Andy Hanau made 10 recommendations for new policies and adjustments. The city’s Department of Developmental Services, which oversees code enforcement, has agreed to implement all of them.
Key recommendations include: • Re-implement a voluntary compliance program to reduce the number of low-priority cases that investigators must inspect • Establish a key performance indicator for the optimal rate of cases for construction and zoning investigators • Improve efficiency of researchers creating new Accela fields and requiring researchers to enter upcoming tasks in Accela • Update code enforcement procedures manual, develop and use Accela tools such as reports or online dashboards, and require systematic and regular supervisory review to help management monitor case status • Create and use a report that accurately measures code application progress on your key performance indicator for initial response times • Create a checklist for case files at line and require that compliance management codes conduct periodic audits of investigators’ cases
The audit is scheduled to be presented to the City Council Audit Committee for discussion on Wednesday, June 15.
— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report. ◆