ZURIK: $2 million price tag, little oversight for Kenner post-Ida tree removal

Published: Mar. 17, 2022 at 10:42 PM CDT
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KENNER (WVUE) - The City of Kenner paid one of its tree removal companies nearly $2 million after Hurricane Ida, but FOX 8 found invoices were paid with little backup documentation, and taxpayers will foot the bill.

About 10 days after Ida, Risk Tree Service submitted a one-page invoice. There was little description for the more-than $813,000 charge, but it didn’t matter, Kenner paid the company.

Dillard University public policy professor Dr. Robert Collins says this payment, and others should be concerning for Kenner residents. “I mean, if I were a taxpayer in Kenner, I would be very upset by this,” said Collins, “There’s really nothing in this documentation … that provides any evidence that they can justify this bill. There’s nothing here to justify this level of billing for these services. It appears that people are just making numbers up.”

Nearly a month after the storm, Risk Tree Service submitted a second invoice this time for $1 million. The invoice included a list of addresses, but little information about what work was performed.

“There would be no way for an internal auditor to go through line by line and to be able to identify what they could justify charging and what they cannot justify charging,” said Collins. “It appears that they left it murky and nebulous on purpose because that means they can charge whatever they want.”

Records show Kenner paid Risk Tree Service nearly $2 million in disaster pay for about two months of work. When broken down, it cost Kenner about $30 per resident for tree removal. That’s much higher than comparisons in other areas. In the rest of Jefferson Parish, it added up to $4.22 per resident. In Terrebonne, it was $3.65 per resident, and in New Orleans, just $.46 per resident.

“It just doesn’t make any sense. When you look at the population of Orleans Parish, and then you look at the population of Kenner. And you see that a very large disproportionate amount of money per resident is going to Kenner when compared to Orleans Parish when compared to Jefferson, when compared to Terrebonne, it just doesn’t make any sense that the numbers are so off. I don’t think you need to be an expert in tree removal, or in accounting, to understand that the numbers simply do not add up. These numbers simply cannot be justified using any system of measurement that anyone would use,” said Collins.

In addition to Risk Tree Service, Kenner hired a post-storm debris collector Ceres Environmental Services to pick up most of the storm debris. The total cost of that work was $5 million. Invoices show part of that cost was billing for tree pick-up. Other parishes had similar arrangements.

Former Kenner Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Chad Pitfield oversaw the work done by Risk Tree Service. Mayor Ben Zahn terminated him after FOX 8 discovered he might have double-dipped, working for Kenner and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff at the same time. A Kenner internal audit concluded Pitfield falsified documents to try to cover up double-dipping. Kenner had also paid Pitfield $86,000 in disaster pay following Ida. But Pitfield’s involvement in the tree collection raises even more questions. The City of Kenner has an existing contract with Risk Tree Service. The company said after Ida, Pitfield asked the owner to drive “around and give a price for the scope of the work,” adding it was a “verbal agreement.”

Kenner then amended the contract, adding $2 million to the price tag. FOX 8 wasn’t provided with any document that shows what that estimate covered.

For comparison, the city of New Orleans paid one of its tree removal contractors, Bayou Tree Service, just $178,000.

Risk Tree Service told FOX 8 in a statement that it stands by the amount it billed Kenner, writing, “No place in the area had more damage than the City of Kenner. Nor the volume of trees that needed maintenance. RTS honored the agreement and cleared all the trees/debris from the City of Kenner. The lack of backup documentation for the invoices is b/c of the pace RTS was moving to clear the trees and debris. RTS had crews out working from sunrise to sunset until the City of Kenner stopped the work.”

The contract with Risk Tree Service appears to cover hauling to the landfill. However, after Ida, the company says it brought debris to the Kenner Yard, which was used as a drop-off site. From there, the city’s garbage collector, IV Waste, charged an additional fee to haul it to the landfill. Risk Tree says it was told to bring the debris to the Kenner Yard by Pitfield, costing taxpayers more money.

This is the second contract Pitfield oversaw where questions were raised about a lack of oversight by Kenner. Collins says it’s a clear sign that all work supervised by Pitfield needs to be audited. “I would be very upset by this. And I would certainly be showing up at my council meetings to air my concerns that my money is not being spent in an efficient or rational or ethical manner,” said Collins.

The attorney for Risk Tree Service, Lance Unglesby released the following statement to FOX 8:

“Risk Tree Service, along with employees of the city of Kenner, worked hand-in-hand from sunrise to sunset to restore the city. Risk Tree Service stands by the amount it billed for its services and has always strived to provide exceptional service. Risk Tree Service provided over 600 pictures in support of its invoices and work performed. The city of Kenner experienced significant tree and debris damage compared to the surrounding areas. As a result, the mission was to clear the trees and debris safely and quickly.”

The City of Kenner tells Fox 8, “Concerning payments to Risk Tree Service, we cannot comment on the amount of damage or payments made by other similarly-sized cities. However, it’s important to note that limiting further impacts to the Jefferson Parish water system due to fallen trees was an important part of the response by Risk Tree Service.”

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