The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority will pay a Station Square-based communications firm $500,000 to figure out how to talk to ratepayers about a multibillion-dollar federally mandated sewer project to reduce the amount of sewage that flows into area rivers and streams during heavy rains.
Ratepayers don’t grasp the complexities of the problems or the solutions, said Arletta Williams, the authority’s executive director.
“Once people have a better understanding of what’s going on, they have those ‘aha’ moments,” Williams said.
The contract with Marc USA, the cost of which the authority’s board approved Thursday, will help make the $2 billion to $3 billion wet-weather plan “tangible and palpable” to ratepayers, she said.
Alcosan’s public relations spending is under scrutiny. The authority tripled its public relations budget to $1.6 million as it raised sewer rates for customers in 83 municipalities, including Pittsburgh.
The authority’s board voted to hire Marc USA in July.
Board member Brenda Smith, executive director of the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, voted for the contract then but voted against the cost Thursday.
“I had no idea it was going to be something of that magnitude,” Smith said. The price tag is for the one-year contract.
She questioned why Alcosan needed to spend that much on a consultant when it recently expanded and bolstered its internal public relations department.
Williams said Marc USA’s original request was more than $500,000, and Alcosan negotiated a lower fee. She said it is consistent with offers made by other firms. Marc USA will be paid out of a $700,000 pot for special projects.
“It seems like Alcosan is spending $500,000 to figure out how to talk to ratepayers,” said Alex Wallach Hanson, an organizer with the Clean Rivers Campaign.
He said the campaign, which watches Alcosan on behalf on ratepayers, has talked to more than 70,000 people about the wet-weather plan during the past three years “on a shoestring budget.”
Board members defended Alcosan’s increased public relations spending.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Chair John Weinstein, the Allegheny County treasurer.
“It’s an extremely complex issue, and there’s not a lot of awareness out there,” said board member Gregory Jones, executive director of Economic Development South.
Jones and board member Corey O’Connor, a Pittsburgh councilman from Squirrel Hill, said more time is needed to explain how the billions of dollars spent will add jobs and revitalize communities.
“When it’s written in the paper, it’s $3 billion for laying pipes down,” O’Connor said. “We really need to ramp up and tell people our story and the good things that are going to come from spending these billions of dollars in the next decades.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].