New audit blames understaffing and mismanagement of San Diego’s large code investigation backlog

Understaffing and mismanagement have dramatically slowed San Diego investigations into sewage leaks, illegal fencing, barking dogs and other citywide code violations, according to a new verification out 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 fast enough to meet the city’s goals increased from 64% to 56% during this period. The decline was more pronounced (77% to 55%) for high-priority cases that pose imminent health and safety threats, such as exposed wires and unstable structures.

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

Some cases are active for more than 600 days without written notice being sent to the affected owner, and a significant percentage of active cases do not receive follow-up inspections.

The audit also found that San Diego missed opportunities to collect more than $500,000 from homeowners by not issuing required reinspection fees. And almost a third of the cases were not inspected at all.

The audit attributes the problems to excessive workloads for code compliance officers, inaccuracies in how they collect and use data, and the failure of officers and their supervisors to effectively use compliance management tools. case that the city pays.

San Diego spends significantly less per capita on code compliance efforts than any other major city in California, the audit found. San Diego spends $6.40 per year per capita, while Sacramento spends $22.80, Long Beach $16.80, and Los Angeles $16.

The results are similar when major cities in California are compared for code-compliant staffing. Los Angeles and San Jose have 40% 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 dedicated to enforcing the code 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 intended to cover additional enforcement required by a new municipal law governing short-term vacation rentals.

On a positive note, the audit found no evidence of bias or racism in code compliance 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 has dropped over the years studied, most of these cases were investigated in the three days. However, the audit revealed that 36 high priority cases had not been investigated for at least 20 days.

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

The audit also determined that the city is not analyzing how effectively it handles investigations in a way that would allow for improvement and greater efficiency.

“While supervisors are expected to identify patterns of missing or overdue inspections, we found that they did not have the necessary report from the case management system to do so,” the audit said.

These issues relate to a less than ideal use of an Accela technology system that follows code cases for the city.

“The methodology for calculating code application response time objective metrics is incomplete and overestimates actual performance by 13 to 28 percentage points,” the audit said. “Additionally, we found that several Accela fields contain significant errors, and the code enforcement 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 enforcement of the code, has agreed to implement them all.

Key recommendations include:
• Reinstate 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 workload for construction and zoning surveyors
• Improve interviewer efficiency by creating new Accela fields and requiring interviewers to enter upcoming tasks in Accela
• Update the Code Enforcement Procedures Manual, develop and use Accela tools such as online reports or dashboards, and require systematic and regular supervisory review to help management monitor the status of case
• Create and use a report that accurately measures code application progress on its KPI for initial response times
• Create a checklist for online records and have code enforcement management perform periodic audits of investigator records

The audit is due to be presented to the City Council‘s Audit Committee for discussion on Wednesday, June 15.

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.

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