MSD trustees approve $500,000 contract for public education, outreach program

Public relation firm’s cost of $500,000 ‘outrageous amount of money,’ critic says

By Kari Williams

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees approved a $500,000 contract with a public relations firm last week to assist with public education and outreach required as part of a federal lawsuit settlement.

The Private Inflow/Infiltration Public Engagement Program is part of the settlement that MSD and the Environmental Protection Agency reached last year and finalized in April.

MSD must spend $4.7 billion over the next 23 years to eliminate illegal sewer overflows, which prompted the federal government to sue MSD on behalf of the EPA and the state of Missouri on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources.

St. Louis-based StandPoint Public Affairs, was one of five firms to respond to a request for proposals for the program.

Proposals ranged in cost from $495,780 to $500,000. A selection committee reviewed and scored the proposals, and the top four firms gave oral presentations to the committee. StandPoint Public Affairs was chosen after “thorough deliberation,” according to information provided by MSD.

Tom Sullivan, a longtime MSD critic, said the $500,000 cost for a public relations firm is “an outrageous amount of money.”

“First of all, you don’t have to go outside and hire a firm, you’ve got your director of public relations (Lance LeComb) here,” Sullivan said, “and, as I pointed out at the last meeting, he was working almost full-time promoting Proposition Y, and he doesn’t have to do that anymore, so I don’t know why you can’t do this in-house also.”

Prop Y, a $945 million bond issue, was approved by voters in June.

LeComb, manager of public information for MSD, told the Call while he appreciates Sullivan’s “confidence in (his) abilities,” the work that will be done “far outpaces” what MSD can do internally.

MSD’s current staff is not at the level to “perform the level of public outreach that is called for by the settlement nor has it been determined if providing these services internally would be the most cost-effective approach,” according to information provided by MSD.

LeComb said MSD had a public affairs group that was a standalone department with its own director, a staff of six and an average budget of $1.4 million per year in March 2003. That department, according to LeComb, was eliminated in 2003 when a new Board of Trustees was appointed.

LeComb was hired in October 2003 and was the sole public affairs contact for about two to three years. The division — a staff of two, including LeComb — is now within the executive director’s office and has had a budget of roughly $300,000 to $500,000 for the last nine years.

The public relations staff has been “bare bones” for the last nine to 10 years, according to LeComb.

Over time, MSD officials would like to bring some of the work in house, though LeComb said it is too soon to know what skill sets will be needed internally.

StandPoint Public Affairs will assist MSD in:

• Public understanding of the settlement and its impact on individual customers.

• Inflow and infiltration elimination program.

• Green infrastructure program.

• Project outreach.