Surveillance, push for 311 tips part of plan to respond to scathing Toronto tree maintenance review

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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

City of Toronto staff say they have begun a crack down on concerning practices and inefficiencies within the municipal tree maintenance program after a damning 2019 auditor general’s audit and subsequent review.

Staff announced a suite of short-term initiatives during an audit committee meeting on Tuesday, including new surveillance activities and calls for tips to the 311 line.

“This (surveillance) has now become an integral part of the oversight we’ll have to do,” General Manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation Janie Romoff told councillors.

“Clearly through this review, our efforts have not been vigorous enough to ensure that the contracts are being implemented appropriately.”

Romoff said staff agreed with all of the auditor general’s new recommendations for change. She said 30-, 60- and 90-day action plans have already begun to be implemented in an effort to address the issues flagged.

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The comments came in response to a presentation by Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler on her follow-up to a 2019 audit that identified millions in potential lost productivity.

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

In April of that year, 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. The audit found 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.

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.

In a follow-up report that was reviewed by the audit committee, Romeo-Beehler showed highlights from 500 hours of surveillance footage gathered by investigators in the summer of 2020. The video appeared to show several instances of workers doing things other than what they were officially claiming to do.

“Certainly there [are] opportunities for efficiency that we saw,” she said Tuesday afternoon.

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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 shop and take breaks while they stated they were driving on work-related business, workers claiming to be tending to trees but instead sat in their truck, and workers taking extended lunches.

While there were improvements made on the GPS front and pending changes to the administration of contracts, Romeo-Beehler said many concerns initially raised in 2019 are still there and that further action is needed.

It was reported that 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, while 57 minutes were spent dumping materials and visiting yards).

Read more: Toronto’s auditor general estimates $2.6M in potential loss of forestry contractors’ productivity

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.

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Concerns were also raised about 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.

Going forward, Romoff said over the course of 30 days there will increased surveillance of workers and more will likely be needed for the “indefinite future.”

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Included in the 30-day plan are plans for better enforcement of contracts, increased reviews of logs with use of photos and surveillance data, the creation of a centralized call log for forestry jobs, and a written notice that the City will no longer pay for breaks, which forestry contracts actually do not require.

Within 60 days, she said new signage will be installed on all tree maintenance vehicles that will encourage people to call the City’s 311 line if there are complaints about work performance. As well, there will be a centralized complaint registry created for monitoring by supervisors and managers.

In the 90-day-and-beyond plan tabled, Romoff said a previously announced replacement contract governing all tree maintenance work will come into effect that will see new pricing structures enacted.

Read more: Millions lost in ‘negligence,’ potential savings for City of Toronto vehicles: auditor general

This should result in certain cost and time reductions, increased bid opportunities and full access to live GPS tracking systems with matching geotagged photos for verification.

A new municipal electronic work management system is also set to come online, which will allow electronic work orders (currently paper is still used in several instances) and data collection to monitor trends.

“We want to get as much productive work out of the contract as possible,” she said.

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Meanwhile, councillors approved a series of motions asking for reports back on having a system in place to deal with issues when there are parked cars, how to have stronger resulted-based forestry contracts going forward and to ensure breaks aren’t paid in future contracts as well as how to put safeguards to prevent payment for things not covered under the contract and termination clauses if there’s evidence of contract performance issues.

Read more: City likely granting millions in unwarranted rental assistance: Toronto auditor general

When it comes to the response put forward by management, the committee asked for progress reports on the 30-, 60- and 90-day plans as well as a report looking at the organizational structure of the urban forestry division.

Councillors expressed their frustration that issues weren’t resolved after the auditor general’s first report. Coun. Josh Matlow described some of the behaviour outlined in the recent review as a “gross breach of trust” and a “real slap in the face to Toronto taxpayers who rely on this service.” Coun. John Filion echoed the comments, saying there was a “horrendous abuse” of tax dollars.

Coun. Frances Nunziata said she’s had residents who have had to wait for a year to have work done on trees.

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“Let’s try to correct our mistakes and hopefully we can be accountable to our residents that we need to be accountable for.”

Deputy Mayor and Ward 2 Coun. Stephen Holyday, who also chairs the audit committee, said there is “a lot of work” to rebuild public trust.

“Council is really going to get into the details of the implementation of this … we want to see progress on this,” he said.

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