Austin’s Planning and Zoning Department does not effectively oversee the city’s historic preservation program, an audit found this week, largely due to lack of documentation and confusion.
The department either failed to collect or failed to document 58 percent of required fees auditors sampled — making the money vulnerable to theft, the report found.
Officials don’t document the status of cases or who’s responsible for reviewing them, auditors said. And the justifications for case decisions made by a single staff member aren’t documented, so there’s no way to track consistency.
Additionally, members of the volunteer Historic Landmark Commission told auditors they often didn’t have enough information to make informed decisions about properties, “which could expose the city to lawsuits as well as dissatisfied stakeholders,” the audit said. Commission members have not had legal guidance on decisions they make, but that is set to change this month, staff said.
“This is very concerning and supports what we’ve been hearing from the community,” Council Member Leslie Pool said Monday at a meeting of the Audit and Finance Committee.
Council Member Kathie Tovo, the committee’s chairwoman, said she knew of multiple cases in which commissioners had given the wrong information to each other about the process of making historic recommendations because of confusion about how the process works.
Greg Guernsey, director of Planning and Zoning, said he was surprised to find that Austin has fewer staff members dedicated to historic preservation than many other cities. The office now has three people, and is hiring a fourth, while comparable cities averaged six.
But getting a digital system in place for tracking fees and cases will help, Guernsey said. Staff has been using paper receipts. A new digital system will also prompt staff members to document actions taken.
The audit recommends the department establish a process to document fees, begin documenting justification for administrative approval of alteration, demolition or relocation cases, improve the process for inspecting historic properties and improve training and legal support for commission members. The department’s staff agreed to do so by next year.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair worried that wouldn’t help enough, particularly when criteria for historic designations includes such vague considerations as a building’s overall value.
“The process overall is subjective to begin with, and then the standards that we do have are not applied consistently. It leads to a lot of confusion and divisiveness,” she said. “This seems like we need a broader strategy or plan, like a revision of the program.”