A study of all of the work done by Austin’s Office of the City Auditor over the last four years found no audit of more than a single department and none done primarily to find cost savings, Austin’s former budget director said Monday.
Frank Rodriguez said his review and his experience with how the city puts together its annual budget confirm the need for the kind of independent efficiency audit that advocates are asking voters to support with Proposition K on Nov. 6.
Rodriguez served for three years as the city’s budget director under Mayor Steve Adler, who has been vocal in his opposition to Proposition K.
Like Adler, Rodriguez describes himself as a progressive. The need for and value of an audit of all city departments, including the utilities, is not a matter of politics but of sound budgeting, Rodriguez said.
But politics was responsible for the city council’s approval of this complicated language in the ballot question, he said:
“Without using the existing internal city auditor or existing independent external auditor, shall the city code be amended to require an efficiency study of the city’s operational and fiscal performance performed by a third-party audit consultant, at an estimated cost of $1-$5 million.”
As The Texas Monitor reported at the time, City Auditor Corrie Stokes said that in the 27-year history of the department, no comprehensive audit of all city departments had been done. Stokes and her staff produce 18 to 20 audits a year, each focused on operations in a single department and not on finding efficiencies or cost savings.
Stokes told The Texas Monitor she supported an independent external audit if the public supported it.
Frustrated with the confusion caused by the political rhetoric around the audit, Rodriguez said his study confirmed the way Stokes described her department’s work.
In the 52 audits Rodriguez looked at (The Case for Proposition K), city auditors identified a total of $161,398 in potential savings. With city budgets of about $4 billion annually, the savings haven’t been significant.
“The auditor’s audits are not intended to be efficiency audits,” Rodriguez said in his report. “The theme of their audits are primarily service effectiveness, employee and public safety, governance, and safeguarding of assets.”
The audits reflect how little control the mayor and the city council have over the budget, he said. In his years on Adler’s staff, Rodriguez watched as the council was brought budgets based each time on the year before and with little questioning from council members of anything in it. From there, council members were asked to make additions based on their policy preferences.
“There are programs from 20 years ago with budgets that get increased without anyone assessing whether or not they are getting the job done,” he said. “There just isn’t any money to cover new council priorities without raising taxes.”
Taking note of that cycle, Rodriguez said in his third year he got support from the city’s Charter Review Commission to recommend creation of an office of budget analysis.
The city council refused to even consider it, he said.
Rodriguez said he was also motivated to get involved because Searle and Citizens for an Accountable Austin, the political action committee Searle set up to promote the audit, were being portrayed by opponents as conservatives with a hidden agenda to dismantle city programs.
Rodriguez served as the city’s budget director in the late 1980s just as the state’s Democrats, led by Comptroller John Sharp, were beginning to get national attention for an audit of all state agencies, the Texas Performance Review.
In Sharp’s eight years as comptroller the performance reviews pinpointed more than $8.5 billion in potential taxpayer savings. As a contractor working with the review staff, Rodriguez said he helped identify $350 million in savings for public school districts.
“Under the leadership of Gov. Ann Richards and because of John Sharp’s tireless efforts, the people of Texas have seen firsthand how a new standard can be set for eliminating waste and renewing a sense of responsibility in government,” Rodriguez said.
Searle has placed a premium on bipartisanship, recruiting well known local progressive advocates like Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance and Fred Lewis, who most recently led a drive to put on the Nov. 6 ballot Proposition J, which would give citizens the final say on a new land development code.
Rodriguez left his city job in 2017 after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. At the time he was under fire for correspondence with his wife and other members of the nonprofit he founded, Latino HealthCare Forum, that suggested he was directing them to a lucrative city contract. Rodriguez denied any wrongdoing and retained Adler’s support until he resigned.
Rodriguez disagrees with his old boss that an efficiency audit is a threat to city values and programs. Adler and at least nine of the 10 members of the city council won’t let that happen, he said. All recommendations from an audit would need approval from that majority to make any changes.
“That’s just a scare tactic,” Rodriguez said. “I think the more eyes there are on the budget process, the better.”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].