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Orange County's planning department in 'critical condition'

A performance audit finds that employees aren't doing required inspections, morale is down and customer service is nearly nonexistent.

July 23, 2009|Tami Abdollah

Orange County's planning department is in "critical condition" -- employees have not been performing required safety and environmental inspections, morale is down and customer service is nearly nonexistent, according to a county performance audit released Wednesday.

The 117-page review of the county's Planning and Development Services Department includes 35 findings and recommendations for improvement in all levels of the agency.

This is the fifth major review of the department, a fact that Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Patricia Bates said was "most disturbing. . . . Some of the same problems . . . are clearly still problems today."

"The ongoing neglect by executive management in addressing internal operating and organizational culture deficiencies has significantly damaged the organization in many aspects: strategically, organizationally, financially and functionally," wrote Steve Danley, the county's performance audit director. "All of this has negatively impacted the department's ability to provide consistent, quality customer service."

Bates and Supervisor Bill Campbell called for the audit in September after receiving complaints from residents and developers. The audit will be officially presented to the board Tuesday.

Bates said she will ask the board to form a task force or oversight committee to ensure that each recommendation is addressed. She said the key initial focuses should be the criticisms of customer service, untimely deposit refunds and inspection issues.

Planning Director Tim Neely retired in March. In a 15-page response to the audit, the new director, Bryan Speegle, does not dispute the findings and wrote that the department has already started to work on many of the issues outlined in the report.

The planning department "chooses to look forward" in hopes of "being creative in our approach to customer services, fiscally responsible in using sound business practices and managing our organization resources," Speegle wrote. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But many of the improvements may increase costs during a time when the department's workload has dropped severely because of the bad economy. Raising fees is not an option, he wrote, and would be strongly opposed.

According to the report, the department's troubles appear to have started in 2002 when it went into the red by $8 million and had to borrow from the general fund. As more county areas were annexed by cities or became new cities, the number of people using the department's services decreased by about 43% over 10 years, to 119,480 in 2009. The faltering economy also has caused workloads to drop dramatically.

Since 2002, the staff has shrunk from 204 people to 39 today. Employees became more focused on salvaging their jobs and billable work rather than customer service, the audit states. Water quality control inspections were not always performed, and oil well inspections were dropped until early this year because the flat fee assessed didn't cover costs.

"The taxpayers are paying a pretty penny for the services they're getting from their government," Bates said, "and it should be delivered in an efficient and quality manner, and should be accountable. That's what's lacking here."

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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