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Audit Rips Hartford's Anti-Blight Initiative

By JENNA CARLESSO

September 19, 2012

HARTFORD The city's process for cleaning up blighted private properties and billing owners "was not clearly or adequately documented" and an initiative associated with the cleanups lacked the management and expertise needed to make the program successful, according to a report completed by the city's chief auditor.

H. Patrick Campbell, the auditor, reviewed the city's livable and sustainable neighborhoods initiative, an anti-blight effort started by Mayor Pedro Segarra and former Chief Operating Officer David Panagore in January, and the method for billing properties cleaned as part of the effort, at the request of the city council. The report was made available to the council on Tuesday.

It highlighted a series of problems that arose during the program's first six months, including the failure of some to follow proper procedures, the lack of adequate documentation to support the cleanups and that "key segments of the process were developed and implemented well after the January 2012 implementation of the program." It notes that it took media reports to escalate the issues to higher management levels.

Standard requirements for citation packets, which serve as the basis for initiating the property cleanups, were not established at the beginning of the program, the report says. As a result, many of the packets included inaccurate or incomplete documentation.

Additionally, the method for billing property owners for costs associated with the cleanups "was not fully developed and implemented until six or more months after the program was initiated," and the process for documenting work performed by the city's public works department "was not adequate," the report says.

The public works department cleaned 37 properties whose owners were in violation of the city's blight ordinances. But the license and inspection department, which was responsible for tallying up the work and billing the owners, had records for only 13 properties. The city was owed at least $27,571.86, according to the license and inspection records, but hadn't billed the property owners.

The auditor's review found, however, that invoices generated for 13 of the 37 properties totaled only $16,936.42. The other properties did not have invoices.

The report also notes that certain cleanups were performed even though they had not been approved by the corporation counsel's office.

Although several city departments were involved in the effort, the report says, the chief operating officer, an assistant chief operating officer overseeing the program and the initiative's four team captains were "ultimately responsible for ensuring the proper administration and success of the program."

Panagore resigned from his post as chief operating officer effective Sept. 14.

Many of the initiative's major problems didn't surface until at least three months after it began due to a lack of oversight, the report says.

"While it was clear that various efforts were made to address many of the problems that were brought to light, it did not appear that there was a realization of, or appreciation for, the progressive severity or extent of the problems, and they were not escalated to the proper level of management," according to the report. "Consequently, the problems and issues and subsequent attempts to resolve them largely continued, for an extended period of time, to circulate among lower level department management until they were disclosed and ultimately escalated to the appropriate level of management by the media."

The report concluded: "In general, it did not appear that the appropriate skill sets, expertise and management tools were in place to adequately administer such a new, extensive, complex program and processes involving so many individuals, departments and functions."

The city's internal audit department recommended that officials put "detailed policies, procedures and controls" in place to ensure private property cleanups are properly documented in the future. It also recommended that city managers invite members of the audit department to be involved in the development of similar projects.

"Although inviting the internal audit department to be involved in the development and implementation of [the initiative] and related programs and processes would not have guaranteed a more beneficial outcome, we believe we could have added value to the program," the report says. "We recommend that city management consider inviting the internal audit department to be at the table and involved from the beginning in future projects."

Segarra has said that city officials are working to reorganize the anti-blight effort. The corporation counsel's office performed its own review of the neighborhoods initiative, which found that the program had "too many variables, was unnecessarily inefficient and presented far too many opportunities for failure."

Segarra could not be reached for further comment Wednesday.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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