Toronto still not getting value for money after major 2019 review of tree maintenance: auditor general

Click to play video: 'Officials at Toronto city hall push for tree maintenance changes after 2nd auditor general report'
Officials at Toronto city hall push for tree maintenance changes after 2nd auditor general report
WATCH ABOVE: For a second time, the City of Toronto’s auditor general has found that those tasked with maintaining the trees are wasting money and time. The findings are infuriating to politicians pushing for improvements, and it comes at a bad time for City finances. Matthew Bingley reports – Feb 9, 2021

Nearly two years after a scathing auditor general’s report identified millions in potential lost productivity in the City of Toronto‘s tree maintenance program, officials have identified continued instances of wasted time and concerning practices.

“I’m angry. I think other members of council are going to be angry,” Deputy Mayor and Ward 2 Coun. Stephen Holyday, who also chairs the City’s audit committee, told Global News Monday afternoon.

“This has already been before council … we considered the issues then, we received assurances that all of this is going to be changed and improved, and here we are with a report with video backed up with complaints from citizens.”

In April 2019, Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler and her office looked at the daily logs of 45 contractor crews in the city’s urban forestry section and compared the logs to the vehicles’ GPS records.

Story continues below advertisement

She wrote that 28 of those crews’ vehicles didn’t stop near the requested tree service location and/or the vehicles went to locations not recorded in the logs and unrelated to the tree service locations (examples included coffee shops and plazas).

Romeo-Beehler looked at the average eight-hour shift and found 2.8 hours of reported time lined up with GPS reports while 1.7 hours of reported work time couldn’t be validated. The rest of the time in that average shift was spent driving to locations, time in the yard, a break and other issues.

At the time, she made 10 recommendations to Toronto city council to address the issues raised in the audit, including regularly reviewing a sample of crews’ logs, considering the installation of GPS systems on vehicles used in the urban forestry section, and increasing the number of inspections.

On Monday, Romeo-Beehler released a follow-up report accompanied by highlights of 500 hours of surveillance footage gathered by investigators in the summer of 2020. She wrote that while there were improvements made on the GPS front and pending changes to the administration of contracts, “many concerns from our original audit persist” and that further action is needed.

“In our view, the City is still not receiving value for money for tree maintenance services,” Romeo-Beehler wrote.

Story continues below advertisement
“The 2019 audit and this follow-up show a culture shift is needed. Although management’s actions to date have moved the City forward in small ways, [the Parks, Forestry and Recreation department] needs a more holistic view of how it delivers tree maintenance services to make sure it is receiving value for money.”

In the auditor general’s office video, it appeared to show several instances of workers doing things other than what they were officially claiming to do.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

Examples captured on video included a worker doing push-ups at a job site, two workers checking cellphones while claiming to be working on a tree at the same time, workers stopping to do shopping and taking breaks while they stated they were driving on work-related business, workers claiming to be tending to trees but instead sat in a truck, and workers taking extended lunches.

Story continues below advertisement

Romeo-Beehler said, on average, contracted forestry workers only spent around 3.5 hours of an eight-hour shift actually working on trees. More than two hours were found to be doing non-productive tasks (approximately 39 minutes involved claims of parked cars obstructing work, an hour and 16 minutes were spent on “other non-productive” tasks and 29 minutes were spent on breaks) and more than two hours were spent on work-related, supporting tasks (approximately an hour and eight minutes spent on driving to work requests and fueling and 57 minutes were spend dumping materials and visiting yards).

In the end, the office found the total time crews actually worked on trees was about an hour less than was reported on their daily logs (excluding the time spent waiting for parked vehicles to be removed). It was also noted that every half hour of increased productivity (and a reduction of time deemed non-productive) would result in approximately $1-million worth of tree maintenance work for the City.

The report also found an estimated $1 million is spent annually to contractors for paid breaks for workers even though terms in contracts don’t specify that the municipality pay the vendors for their employees’ breaks.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, Holyday, whose central Etobicoke ward has a large tree canopy, said change needs to happen as soon as possible to address the backlog of requests from residents in his and other councillors’ wards.

“[Tree maintenance] is a very important service in this part of the city,” he said.

“My expectation as a member of council starting right here, right now, today (is) that improvements get made to this and I want to see evidence of this in the short-term.”

READ MORE: Fare evasion and malfunctioning Metrolinx equipment cost TTC $64M in 2018, auditor general finds

Holyday went on to praise the work of many forestry and municipal workers who have worked throughout the pandemic, but he said the findings in the auditor general’s report “erodes that confidence” and trust. He called on management to address the “fundamental, basic issues” raised by Romeo-Beehler and her staff.

Story continues below advertisement

In particular, Holyday said he wanted to see action to crack down on unsafe work practices. Romeo-Beehler said there were instances where workers weren’t wearing proper safety equipment while working and were “potentially not safely operating” forestry equipment.

“There are no excuses for cutting corners or taking chances with safety. I expect that to be addressed immediately,” he said.

Romeo-Beehler made 18 recommendations to city council to address her latest findings, including requiring managers to conduct increased discreet checks of contractors and workers, find ways to cut down on the amount of time spent doing non-productive tasks and supporting duties, increase tracking of complaints, improve crew management, further verify GPS information and submitted work logs and to better manage contracts.

The audit committee is set to review the report on Feb. 16.

Sponsored content