Saturday, May 26, 2007

Apples, Oranges and Budgets

If I worked for the mayor's office, I could assert that the city council has decided to double the amount that it spends on a PR person and the Times Picayune would probably accept the assertion at face value (Bruce Eggler does do a good job of pointing out the mayor's questionable use of numbers and percentages, but usually several paragraphs into an article that's buried somewhere in section B). The city council has decided to increase the contract for a PR person from $65,000 to $95,000 -- a 46% increase. It would be fair enough to say, "almost a 50% increase." However, it would be totally incorrect to say the the old contract was 50% less than the new contract. Yet the mayor's office consistently makes that kind of "mistake" with numbers and nobody points out the distortion. The pattern should be apparent to anybody follows local news stories; the Nagin administration's description of $15,000 as 50% less than $22,000 (in the case of the crime camera contracts) was only one example.

Back to the matter hand, it appears that either Head and Midura were posturing about cutting PR expenses last month, or the patronage prince has more pull than they do. However, I'm sure that Councilman Fielgood labelled the contract "outstanding." Oddly enough, the next section of the same article describes how the city can't even afford decent office space for the agency "charged with spearheading the city's recovery."

But the council insists that the increased PR budget is justified:
Pursell said council staffers arrived at what they felt was the "modest" $95,000 figure after doing a marketing analysis of what other big cities pay for media consultants.

For example, he said, the study found that the Atlanta council spends $335,000 a year, while in Dallas, where the council and the mayor's office share the costs, the total is about $1 million. About 395,000 people live in Atlanta and Dallas has about 1.1 million residents; New Orleans' current population has been pegged at roughly 255,000 residents.

Pursell also noted that the 2007 budget for the Nagin administration's communications office is more than $600,000.

The article didn't mention the cost of the study, or who conducted it. Leaving aside the question of the validity of comparing spending decisions of the Dallas government with those of New Orleans, those comparisons may not be as valid as they seem. In an earlier post, I pointed that the title "library associate" doesn't mean exactly the same thing in the New Orleans public library system as in other libraries. I don't bring up the point to rehash angry feelings or to argue that NOPL associates are overpaid; my point is merely that, in the one area where I have first hand knowledge, a seemingly straightforward, apples-to-apples comparison is anything but. I suspect that something similar is occurring here -- probably involving PR budgets for mayors' offices, city councils and city governments as a whole.

To return to my old department, when the library system reduced the size of its staff from over 200 employees down to 19, one the retained employees was in charge of community relations, in other words, a PR person. I get the impression that most of the departments of city government have employees whose primary job functions are PR related. It would be fair to question how much of that million dollar PR budget in Dallas is for city government as a whole.

Even if the figures aren't misleading, it's fair to point out that $95,000 is a outside consultant's fee that's over a third of the amount budgeted for the city IG's office and it's certainly fair to ask why the council decided not to take that money from the mayor's PR budget.

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