Budget cutbacks have forced some East Valley cities to reduce staff and scale back community services, but the spokesmen and women who explain these changes to the public still draw top municipal salaries.
Steve Wright earns nearly $108,000 per year to direct media relations and public information for Mesa. Pat Dodds earns about $122,000 to do a similar job in Scottsdale. And Toni Maccarone tops out at close to $140,000 as director of public information in Phoenix.
Maccarone’s staff in Phoenix includes nine full-time public information officers and another part-time employee who earns $35,599 per year working 20 hours a week.
The city has six additional police officers and three firefighters who also handle media relations.
Tasks vary from city to city for public information officers. But generally these people prepare news releases and newsletters, respond to inquiries from print and broadcast journalists, gather information for city Web sites, organize public awareness campaigns and assist with city cable programs.
However, some question whether these high-paid spokespeople really work for the taxpayers who pay their salaries.
If they’re getting clear and objective information out to city and town residents, then critics of government waste like Byron Schlomach, the chief economist for the Scottsdale-based Goldwater Institute, wouldn’t have a problem paying for their positions.
But too often, he said, they’re paid to “promote a message” and don’t release all the relevant details about city projects that eventually end up hitting the taxpayers in their collective pocketbooks. “I understand that you need to convey information, but too many times it’s more of a sales pitch as opposed to good information,” he said.
CUTBACKS IN MESA
In 2006 when Mesa experienced a budget crisis, the city responded by cutting four of its nine public information positions — not counting additional media relations specialists with the police and fire departments.
This year, with the next budget calamity on the horizon, the department has been asked to cut its budget again by 5 percent.
Wright, the director of public information and communications for the city, said this will not require the elimination of any more staff.
He said this is important because sharing information with the public is a crucial government function in the United States, where citizens are empowered to stay involved in the political process.
“I think that one of the important things a government can do is be transparent,” Wright said. “We provide information and education to citizens. It all impacts them.”
The latest cutbacks will mostly impact Mesa cable Channel 11, which provides residents with up-to-date happenings in the city of about 450,000 residents.
In addition, the city plans to make cuts from its advertising budget for programs and city meetings as well as reducing translation services within the department.
Mesa Councilman Mike Whalen said the city would have to consider cutting PIO positions if it believed the department was overstaffed.
But, he said, information officers perform important services for the city, beyond dealing with the press.
“Public information officers do a lot more than just talk to the media,” Whalen said. “They contact the Legislature, they do public outreach tasks and are not just talking heads.”
Budget cutbacks led Gilbert to contemplate the elimination of a monthly publication that costs the town about $200,000 a year to produce and circulate.
The publication updates residents on town programs and issues. But Gilbert spokesman Greg Svelund said the Town Council decided against eliminating the publication last month.
“My thoughts are that getting accurate information to people about services and programs is critical, regardless of budget situations,” Svelund said.
Svelund serves as the only public information officer in the town of about 210,000 residents. But he’s leaving Gilbert at the end of this month and, despite budget shortfalls, town officials plan to replace him quickly.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind position over here in Gilbert,” Town Manager George Pettit said.
“Obviously police and fire have their spokespeople to be able to deal with emergency scenes, but for the rest of the organization, that’s the only position we’ve got for public information.”
Pettit said letting department heads and other town staffers handle questions from the public and media simply won’t work. In asking department heads directly, the public would get “a great parks and recreation answer or a great fire answer or a great police answer, but you aren’t going to get an organizational response.”
INVESTING IN CHANDLER
Despite the economic trends, Chandler has increased the salaries for its public information officers by about $4,000 per year during the last five years, said Jim Phipps, one of the city’s public information officers.
Chandler has seven public information officers who handle media relations, including three police officers and one firefighter.
Phipps said Chandler’s population is “booming” with a quarter of a million residents. He said it takes several people to keep the city’s residents informed, especially when it comes to public safety issues.
He said this is why the police department dedicates three officers to the job of media relations.
“These citizens are our customers, and we need to tell them what we’re doing with their money,” Phipps said. “With 250,000 customers, this is becoming a growing job.”
He said most residents appreciate the service.
“We ask them to vote and support the government,” Phipps said. “But they can’t do that in an informed way unless we keep communications open.”
HEALTHY IN TEMPE
The down economy has not forced Tempe to trim its public information office.
The city employs two people who work solely as a public information professionals, said community relations coordinator Shelley Hearn.
She said that while Tempe employs many people whose jobs include community relations, only Nikki Ripley at City Hall and Sgt. Cindy Davies in the police department work as full-time public information officers.
“If we didn’t have Nikki and Cindy providing that information to the public, not only in what we’re doing, programs and roads being closed, the public wouldn’t have that information,” Hearn said.
SHARING THE MESSAGE IN SCOTTSDALE
Scottsdale, which has about 230,000 residents, is served by five public information employees who work primarily in media relations. Two of those work in the police department and one works in the fire department.
Unlike some East Valley cities that are trimming staff or considering deep cuts to programs and services, Scottsdale’s budget is relatively healthy. Staff cuts have not been an issue discussed in recent budget talks.
Dodds, who heads the city’s public information office, said he believes that public relations is worth the amount of tax dollars spent.
“Communications is an important part of the whole government process,” Dodds said. “Whether it is face to face communication or through the media, people rely on newspapers, and to a lesser extent on broadcast, for information about the local government.”
- Tribune writers Chris Markham, Sonu Munshi and Dennis Welch contributed to this story.