ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More often than not, Albuquerque property owners whose uncorrected code violations prompted city intervention were not paying up.
From 2015 to 2019, the city’s Code Enforcement Division issued $2.9 million in liens to recover money it spent cleaning up weeds or litter infractions, demolishing vacant problem properties or performing emergency board-ups.
But it recouped just $1.3 million in that span.
That was a finding in a 2020 report from the Office of Internal Audit that helped spur change. The Planning Department has worked with city information technology staff to streamline reporting systems, and it assigned an employee to specifically work on the Code Enforcement Division’s books.
“I was pleasantly surprised in the sense what (internal auditors) were recommending … were doable action items for us as a department,” Planning Director Brennon Williams said. “They helped us be more transparent, more accountable and ultimately more effective and efficient.”
The Office of Internal Audit and the Office of Inspector General — which investigate allegations of potential fraud and other wrongdoing in city departments and contracting — are independent accountability agencies within city government.
They exist to identify and head off problems inside the $1.1 billion-a-year municipal government operation, and they report to a citizen committee instead of the mayor or City Council.
But right now the city has neither a city auditor nor an inspector general, a situation that at least one city councilor considers an urgent problem.
City Councilor Trudy Jones said she is concerned about having both jobs open given their vital role in safeguarding public resources.
“We need to make sure we can double-check on everything and keep our taxpayer funds being used wisely and where they’ve been appropriated to use,” Jones said.
Filling jobs a priority
Albuquerque’s last full-time auditor resigned more than a year ago, and the city has had little luck finding a permanent replacement. Inspector General Kenneth Bramlett helped fill the gap, assuming the “interim city auditor” title on top of his IG responsibilities.
However, Bramlett died in December after contracting COVID-19.
Under his guidance, the OIG had shed light on various issues within city government. In 2020, it investigated a $50,000 Animal Welfare Department contract, finding evidence of favoritism and collusion in choosing the vendor, and only vague documentation of the services rendered. The OIG also reported that a Municipal Development Department employee was managing an assisted living facility on the side and that more than half the calls made from his work phone were related to that facility or were personal calls. That probe prompted Municipal Development to launch its own internal investigation, which is still underway.
Since Bramlett’s death, a city audit manager has been leading both the OIA and OIG and “doing a good job,” said Edmund Perea, chair of the five-member Accountability in Government Oversight Committee that oversees the offices. But he said filling the jobs on a permanent basis is a priority.
“We’d really like to fill them as soon as possible, just for stability’s sake,” Perea said. “I think it’s important to the function of both offices to have a permanent person in place.”
State Auditor Brian Colón — who has an ongoing probe into Albuquerque Police Department overtime — said sometimes his office’s work overlaps with the city oversight agencies’ work, and that both the inspector general and city auditor are “incredibly valuable” for city accountability.
“Any time there’s a vacancy at the top, it has the potential to impact our work as well,” said Colón, adding that he hoped the city would fill both jobs expeditiously.
Staffing shortage problem
Low staff levels already have affected productivity within Internal Audit, according to the department’s annual report.
The office completed just three audit reports in fiscal year 2020, a steep dropoff from the 12 issued in 2019 and well below the department’s goal of 16 audit reports per year.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was a contributing factor, the “turnover and staffing shortage significantly impacted our ability to issue as many reports as planned,” the office’s fiscal year 2020 report said. The eight-position office had multiple vacancies most of that year.
The city failed in its last attempt to hire a new city auditor.
It advertised the job for six months in 2020, attracting 20 applicants.
The oversight committee, which is responsible for interviewing the applicants and identifying finalists, sent a list of the top three candidates to the City Council for the ultimate hiring decision.
But all three finalists dropped out of contention before the council could vote.
Perea said he does not know why.
“I didn’t get any direct feedback,” he said.
The city reposted the job in October, but a relatively lackluster response — which Perea suggested might have had to do with the holidays — has prompted it to extend the application deadline twice.
The posting was scheduled to close Sunday.
Councilor Diane Gibson, who represents the council on the oversight committee as a nonvoting member, said there is not a particularly deep pool of people qualified for the auditor and IG roles, and those who fit the position typically have good jobs already.
“I think it’s a specialized enough role to fill that there’s not a whole lot of availability. I think that even if we were Chicago or Dallas that we’d still have to cast a wide net to find somebody who has the qualifications and is needing a job,” she said.
Colón also noted the hiring challenges. He said he has occasionally struggled to fill openings on his staff since qualified candidates can often earn more in the private sector.
The city auditor’s salary will depend on qualifications, the city said. The last auditor made about $112,000 per year.
The city recently opened applications for inspector general. The position is scheduled to close Feb. 18, and Perea said last month he does not expect it to be harder to fill, saying the 2018 search that yielded Bramlett attracted “a very good pool.”
In the meantime, Perea said the committee continues checking in with the agencies’ interim leader, who is keeping operations going.
“Things are running as smooth as (possible),” he said. “But from our perspective, we really want to get someone in place as soon as possible.”