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Audit blames understaffing and mismanagement for large backlog of San Diego code investigations

San Diego City Hall
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Understaffing and mismanagement have significantly slowed San Diego’s investigations into leaking sewage, illegal fences, barking dogs and other code violations across the city, a new audit reported.

The city’s backlog of cases approximately doubled between January 2018 and January 2021, from 3,178 to 6,306, according to the audit, released June 9.

The number of cases investigated fast enough to meet city goals dropped from 64 percent to 56 percent over that time. The drop was steeper (77 percent to 55 percent) for high-priority cases that pose imminent threats to health and safety, such as exposed wires and unstable structures.

According to the audit, city code officers also are slow to investigate many cases and to issue fines and other penalties that can be crucial to gaining compliance.

Some cases are active for more than 600 days without a written notice being issued to the property owner involved, and a significant percentage of active cases don’t get follow-up inspections.

The audit also found that San Diego missed opportunities to receive more than $500,000 from property owners by not issuing required reinspection fees. And almost one-third of cases got no inspection at all.

The audit blames the problems on excessive workloads for code compliance officers, inaccuracies in how they collect and use data, and a failure by officers and their supervisors to effectively use case-management tools the city pays for.

San Diego spends dramatically less per resident on code compliance efforts than all other major cities in California, the audit found. San Diego spends $6.40 annually per resident, while Sacramento spends $22.80, Long Beach $16.80 and Los Angeles $16.

The results are similar when California’s large cities are compared on code compliance 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.

San Diego has 73 full-time employees devoted to code enforcement at an annual cost of $9 million.

Mayor Todd Gloria proposed to increase those numbers to 90 workers and $11 million for the new fiscal year that starts July 1. 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 compliance efforts. “We did not find any significant relationships 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 dropped during the years studied, most of those cases were investigated within three days. However, the audit found that 36 high-priority cases were not investigated for at least 20 days.

“This indicates that cases can fall through the cracks and violations that potentially threaten health and safety are not always assessed quickly,” the audit said.

The audit also determined the city doesn’t analyze how efficiently it handles investigations in ways that would enable improvement and more efficiency.

“While supervisors are supposed to identify patterns of missing or late inspections, we found they lack the necessary report from the case management system to do so,” the audit said.

Those problems are connected to less-than-ideal use of an Accela technology system that tracks code cases for the city.

“The methodology to calculate code enforcement’s response-time goal metrics is incomplete and overstates actual performance by 13 to 28 percentage points,” the audit said. “Additionally, we found that several Accela fields have significant errors and that code enforcement’s supervisory review does not sufficiently ensure the accuracy of entered data.”

City Auditor Andy Hanau made 10 recommendations for new policies and adjustments. The city’s Development Services Department, which oversees code enforcement, agreed to implement them all.

Key recommendations include:
• Reimplement a voluntary compliance program to reduce the number of low-priority cases that investigators need to inspect
• Establish a key performance indicator for optimal average caseload for building and zoning investigators
• Improve investigator efficiency by creating new Accela fields and requiring investigators to enter upcoming tasks into Accela
• Update the code enforcement procedures manual, develop and use Accela tools such as reports or online dashboards and require regular, systemic supervisory review to help management monitor case status
• Create and use a report that accurately measures code enforcement’s progress on its key performance indicator for initial response times
• Create a checklist for online case files and require code enforcement management to conduct periodic audits of investigator cases

— Point Loma-OB Monthly staff contributed to this report.


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