Less than two years after Toronto's top auditor revealed that private tree maintenance workers were billing taxpayers for work they never did, a follow-up investigation has discovered that the problem persists.

Investigators from the Auditor’s General office spent 500 hours surveilling private contractors to determine whether questionable practices had changed, but determined that in many instances the workers continued to spend significant amounts of time drinking coffee, reading, smoking, and even exercising while on the clock.

“It’s unconscionable,” audit committee chair Stephen Holyday told CTV News Toronto Monday. “What kind of person does it take to do this kind of thing when they know that they’re being watched by the Auditor General?”

A 2019 investigation into value for money in tree maintenance services cross-referenced employee work logs with the GPS coordinates of their vehicles and determined that in 62 per cent of sampled cases there were discrepancies between where employees claimed to be and where they actually were. In many instances their GPS records aligned with coffee shop and plaza parking lots.

The Auditor General pegged the lost productivity at $2.6 million.

In this latest review, the auditor’s office confirmed that workers’ trucks were usually parked near their job sites, which she attributes to increased GPS scrutiny following the 2019 audit. But investigators determined that employees were often not working, and were instead sitting in their vehicles, using their personal phones for extended times, and going for walks to coffee shops. These activities were in addition to their prescribed break and lunch periods.

In other instances employees claimed that work could not be done on job sites until parked cars were moved out of the way—but investigators reported that there were no parked cars there.

The Auditor found that crews spent an average of just three-and-a-half hours a day actually working on trees, including associated preparation time, clean-up time, and paperwork—less than half of their eight-hour day.

“They’ve demonstrated themselves to be taking advantage of the public’s trust and the public’s dollars,” audit committee member Councillor Josh Matlow said Monday. “You don’t get to work for the City of Toronto if you’re ripping people off.”

In October 2019 officials from the city’s parks department indicated that they had “vigorously” undertaken steps to improve oversight. But the city’s Chief Communications Official Brad Ross admitted Monday that contracts still needed to be better-monitored.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to happen within the City to ensure that those contracts are being appropriately executed, and frankly with the contractors themselves to understand that they’re accountable as well to the city and ultimately to the people of Toronto,” Ross said.

The audit recommended the City Manager implement additional supports and accountability for outsourced contracts.

The report found that if all crews were to actively work on trees 30 more minutes per day, productivity would improve by $1 million annually.