Department of Streets and Sanitation Weed-Cutting Program Audit

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an audit of the Department of Streets and Sanitation’s (DSS) weed-cutting program. DSS is responsible for mowing weeds that have grown higher than ten inches on the public way, as well as City-owned and private vacant land. DSS ward superintendents manage this process by visually surveying their wards, responding to complaints, and providing direction to contractors. According to DSS, weed cutting is important because “high weeds can conceal illegal activities, obscure dangerous debris, harbor rodents, and serve as a breeding ground for mosquitos.” In addition, overgrown weeds can “reduce real estate values and undermine safety and community improvement efforts.” Because the problem of overgrown weeds disproportionately impacts the West and South Sides of Chicago, DSS’ effectiveness in delivering this service substantially impacts efforts to combat blight in these neighborhoods.

The objective of this audit was to determine if DSS meets its goals of mowing all City-owned vacant land at least four times during the growing season, which is May 1st through October 31st, and addressing all overgrown weed complaints within 42 days (six weeks).

OIG concluded that DSS does not meet its goals for timely weed cutting. Because there is no reliable list of City-owned properties that require mowing, the Department cannot effectively manage City-owned vacant property. Moreover, DSS cannot accurately assess its performance in responding to weed-cutting complaints, because its data system is insufficient to ensure that important information is consistently and accurately captured.

OIG found that, although DSS staff are responsible for identifying City-owned vacant lots that require weed cutting, the City does not have a complete or accurate list of such properties. As a result, Department cannot ensure that City-owned vacant lots are cut at least four times per year. Further, lacking an accurate list, ward superintendents often entered citations into the Mobile Electronic Ticketing System (METS) for City-owned properties, leaving it up to the Department of Law (DOL) to review and reject these erroneous charges. In 2019, ward superintendents entered 5,265 such citations, constituting nearly one-quarter of the 22,295 weed cutting citations entered that year. These mistakes wasted the time and resources of both DSS and DOL.

OIG also found that DSS staff resolve complaints in a variety of ways, but flaws in the Department’s data system prevent it from determining which scenario a closed-out complaint work order represents. Therefore, the Department cannot determine if it addresses weed complaints in a timely manner.

OIG recommends that DSS work with the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) and DOL to compile a complete and accurate inventory of vacant City-owned properties, then provide this inventory to weed-cutting contractors to manage. Ward superintendents should be responsible only for identifying sanitation nuisances in their wards and responding to complaints. The Department should develop—and clearly communicate to staff and contractors—performance-based weed-cutting goals applicable to both management of City-owned land and complaint response. Finally, DSS should improve its data entry practices to ensure that it captures all the information necessary to assess its weed-cutting program performance.

DSS agreed with OIG’s audit recommendations and stated that it has already begun to implement corrective actions. For the 2020 weed cutting season, DSS has begun providing the contractor with weekly lists of City-owned lots to mow and continues to issue tickets to private properties in violation of the ordinance. DSS plans to work with DOL and DPD to help improve the City lot list by, for example, having ward superintendents provide other departments with information about vacant properties to aid in the ownership verification process. DSS stated it is in the process of shortening its complaint response goal from 42 days to 21 days and will communicate the change to staff. Finally, before the 2021 weed cutting season, the Department plans to improve its data collection systems and processes.