Austin isn’t using its cultural centers effectively, new audit says


A mural at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — An August 2020 audit says the City of Austin isn’t using its cultural centers effectively.

The audit looked at four centers— the Asian-American Resource Center, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center and African American Cultural and Heritage Facility — and analyzed how they were managed and how funding was used to take care of each space.

The audit says most of the centers are managed by the Parks and Recreation Department, except for the African-American Cultural and Heritage Facility, which is overseen by the Economic Development Department.

Building upkeep

The city allocated money from a 2018 voter-approved bond funding to some of the centers, but the audit says there was no strategic facility planning in place for how to use that money.

Additionally, some of the buildings didn’t have an updated master plan.

“Without an updated master plan, it is difficult to accurately articulate a facility’s improvement needs. PARD staff noted that the City allocated $7.5 million to the George Washington Carver Museum, but the City did not have detailed plans on how and where that funding was going to be used,” the audit said.

The audit says the city didn’t maintain the buildings properly or fix issues with accessibility due to insufficient funding, which could lead to injury to visitors.

At the Mexican-American Cultural Center, six maintenance issues were found in July 2019, but according to the audit, PARD says they “will be addressed as resources become available.”

There isn’t a timeline for when that would be.

The audit says the George Washington Carver Museum had 42 items in need of maintenance or repair and 10 more items under construction as of May 2020 — there’s no timeline for that either.

To help with funding, the Office of the City Auditor recommended that PARD create a process to periodically update master plans. The audit says PARD agreed and “has taken action to begin funding both new and updated master planning documents.”

Additionally, the audit says PARD agreed to work with the City Manager and Budget Office to identify necessary funding for maintenance. That guidance would be available for the Fiscal Year 2022 General Fund Budget Cycle.

Using the space

All centers are open for community events, facility rentals and programs, with some offering genealogy resources and outreach.

However, some spaces up for event rentals in two centers weren’t listed on their websites, which the audit says could lead to reduced community use.

The audit also says the way some spaces are situated may be preventing full community use. For example, some meeting rooms open to the public were transformed into office space for staff and some rooms and outdoor areas could only be used at certain times due to “spillover noise.”

When the public does make reservations to use the space, the audit says the centers’ staff didn’t consistently use the primary reservation software, RecTrac, to enter it, and instead recorded reservations using Outlook. This makes data on community use of the centers hard to track and analyze, according to the audit, and limits staff’s ability to provide the right amount of resources for each event.

Staff use Outlook calendars to track all planned facility uses, because they are not entering all information into RecTrac. However, space use analysis in Outlook is cumbersome and incomplete. RecTrac’s incomplete information and Outlook’s limited analysis capability hinder staff’s ability to use data when deciding how best to use staff and other resources.

Office of the City Auditor

Additionally, the audit said staff did not “consistently track reservation request denials, limiting the ability to determine how many requests were received and granted.”

Other findings

The audit explains that Austin City Council approves an annual fee schedule for facility reservations, but that fees were not consistently charged at PARD-managed centers in accordance with the schedule. The audit also says fees listed on the centers’ websites were incorrect and fees for similar spaces across centers varied. This could result in lost revenue, according to the audit.

Additionally, the audit says some of the centers’ staff did not receive proper customer service or cultural sensitivity training, which could reduce the centers’ ability to foster relationships with the community.

“Our review showed that at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center and the George Washington Carver Museum, the majority of full and part-time staff received customer service and cultural sensitivity training,” the audit said. “However, at the Asian American Resource Center, only 30% of full and part-time staff received customer service training and only 50% received cultural sensitivity training.”

You can read the full audit online.

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