Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Amidst much recent criticism in the press, the Mesa Water District‘s elaborate public relations program, along with its “branding” effort in particular, seems to have backfired (read here and here).

Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa’s public relations or “communications” annual budget has expanded from about $400,000 to a projected $1.4 million for FY 2014—with about $3.8 million spent since FY 2011.

One consulting firm in particular, Laer Pearce & Associates, had a strong influence on Mesa Water’s public relations approach in the past several years, especially its branding program, and rests at the center of the recent controversy.

Today the Surf City Voice begins a daily presentation of invoices from that contract which had an end cost of $209,141.40. Consulting contracts are not on Mesa Water’s website.

Looking at Mesa Water District’s contract with LP&A invoice by invoice, was it worth the price?

The answer depends on Mesa Water’s (vs. the public’s?) priorities and needs as well as the quality of the assigned work. In the following weeks, as the reader goes through the LPA invoices that Mesa Water paid, he or she can decide if the money was wisely spent or not.

LP&A started working for Mesa Water in April, 2008. In September, 2009, Paul Shoenberger, formerly a member of Mesa’s board of directors, was appointed general manager.

The contract between LPA and Mesa Water came out to roughly 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week if you only calculate for the lower range of the $265 – $350 per hour that LPA charged.

That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per years for the same work that Mesa Water Communications Manager Stacy Taylor–who has over 20 years of professional experience, including running her own public relations firm, theoretically could have done under a salary of $194,000 per year, including benefits.

Of the $290,141.40 paid by Mesa Water to LPA, $152,709.73 was spent on its recently terminated (re) branding program, which included nearly $29,000 spent on preparation for the District’s 50th anniversary celebration, another special VIP private party paid for with additional ratepayers’ money — in the same vein as the controversial $50,000 private party the District threw in March to celebrate completion of its so-called Reliability Facility (previously Colored Water Treatment Facility).

Laer Pearce Invoice
Work report from the first invoice to Mesa Water from Laer Pearce & Associates

The first invoice, #7598, is from April 11, 2008, to September Sept. 10, 2008. The bill is $3,450, mostly for “Meetings, Consultation and Project Support.” The Monthly Activity Report shows that the total budgeted for the “project” was $51,100 with $47,650 remaining. Also, the report notes, “$54,735 in additional funds were also proposed. The final budget yet to be determined.”

Here’s what Mesa Water, then named Mesa Consolidated Water District, got for its $3,450:

  • Attended 2/23 and 8/25 meetings at Mesa with Lee Pearl [Mesa Water’s general manager at that time], Coleen Monteleone, Amanda Gavin and Adam Probolsky to discuss outreach and survey strategy.
  • Reviewed proposed survey questions from Adam Probolsky and comments from Board and staff; provided comments; prepared list of additional questions for the team’s consideration.
  • Researched and drafted memo on potential award opportunities available to Mesa
  • Sent chart of local water district rates to team with comments.
  • Discussion with Coleen Monteleone about moving forward with initial elements of outreach plan.

Click the photo thumbnail above to read the work report in detail.

For balance, the reader/ratepayer can read Laer Pearce’s justification of Mesa Water’s contract with his firm (here).

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