Orange County's Planning & Development Services department "is in critical condition," according to an internal county audit released in late July.

The 117-page report by the county's Office of the Performance Audit Director detailed a planning department that has seen its workload and staffing level decline drastically this decade because of incorporations and decreased building activity. At the same time, the department adopted a new time-and-materials fee methodology and went through several permanent and interim directors.

Seven years ago, county officials revealed the department was operating at a $500,000-a-month deficit, a situation that forced out both the planning director and the county administrator. The deficit arose after the county slashed fees to burn off $18.5 million in excess plan check and building inspection fee revenue. The county later shifted to a time-and-materials fee basis.

The county auditor concluded, "Avoiding an operating deficit continues to be, by far, the top priority for the PDS (planning and development services) organization. In response to drastically declining revenues, PDS has made significant operations changes to achieve financial solvency, in many cases at the expense of customer service."

Department Director Tim Neely retired earlier this year. New Director Bryan Speegle responded to the audit by agreeing with many of the findings.