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Apartment inspection program fails

The city of Tampa has lost more than $1-million in uncollected fees since 1990 because of a faulty apartment inspection program, according to a new city audit.

In the first audit ever done on the 21-year-old program, internal auditors said they found "many problems," including a failure to inspect more than half the apartments in the city and poor documentation of apartments that have been inspected.

"It's a tough audit, and it's one that we've got to address," Mayor Sandy Freedman said Tuesday. "I'm convinced that it's a program that we have to do. Our problem has been manpower, primarily."

City officials created the "certificate of compliance" program in 1972 to make sure that apartments and all other residential rental properties in Tampa met minimum housing standards. Under the program, owners of rental property are supposed to pay a $35-per-unit fee and get an inspection before receiving a certificate of compliance. They also must pay a $10-per-unit annual renewal fee.

The 36-person Standards and Enforcement division of the city's Housing and Development Coordination department runs the program.

After studying the program for most of a year, internal auditors said that more than 29,051 apartment units citywide are not certified.

"There are citizens residing in uninspected property which may or may not meet minimum building standards," auditors said in their 38-page report. "These are the very individuals that the certificate of compliance program was designed to protect."

Moreover, because the rental units are not certified, the apartments' owners have never paid a total of $1.01-million in application fees and are not paying another $290,510 in annual renewal fees.

Standards and Enforcement officials also failed to document that inspections were ever done for 34 percent of the apartments certified from October 1990 to early 1992, according to the audit. Once that documentation system was computerized, the problem virtually disappeared.

"In summary, it is not good internal control practice to charge citizens for an inspection that is never performed," the report said. "Nor is it good internal control practice to give citizens a certificate stating that their property meets minimum building standards when the city has taken no action to prove whether or not it does."

The audit also found an "excessive" number of apartment complexes that were paying for an incorrect number of rental units on their business licenses.

Auditors found problems in 60 percent of the complexes they sampled, and in each case the complex paid for fewer units than actually existed.

Freedman and other city officials blamed the problems on a program that has not been studied in years and has not grown or evolved to handle a huge workload created by the development of new rental units.

"It's the volume (of work) and the paper flow," Freedman said. "We have just not had the resources of all kinds" to do the job.

Freedman said the program can be improved by taking steps to make sure that inspection, licensing and enforcement employees share information.

Even though they found plenty to criticize, auditors concluded that the program "is an excellent program _ one that provides a public service and can actually fund a portion of its own cost."

"While problems do currently exist," they added, "all findings (are) of a nature that can be corrected if the recommendations in this report are implemented."

"We're anxious to correct (the problems) and put systems into place that are more efficient," said Fernando Noriega, the city's director of Housing Development and Coordination. "I think what the audit says is that we need to put some attention into systems, and that's exactly what we're going to do."

Noriega said he wants to add several clerical positions to the Standards and Enforcement division to give inspectors more time to work and improve the department's equipment and procedures.

Despite the undocumented inspections and uncounted units, Internal Audit Director Lou Prida said auditors found no reason to conclude that anyone had manipulated the system.

"That was the first thing we looked for," Prida said. "There were no patterns" involving inspectors or groups of apartment owners.