I-Team: The Water Authority's Cash Cow, Part 2 - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: The Water Authority's Cash Cow, Part 2

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SNWA does some things very well. Our water supply is safe and reliable, but critics point out water officials don't have much tolerance for contrary opinions. They're the experts and they figure the rest of us should take their word for it, even if it means using our own money to convince us that they're right.

The effort is a lot bigger than just a few TV commercials.

A TV spot featuring water czar Pat Mulroy looked a lot like a campaign commercial. It was a thank you to southern Nevada for conserving water, part of a massive multi-million dollar advertising blitz -- a series of memorable ads that clearly have worked.

"Our advertising has been effective. We've reduced water use, the public has gotten on board, and so I don't apologize even for a minute for any of that expenditure. The cheapest source of new supply is conservation," said SNWA Deputy General Manager Richard Wimmer.

Wimmer, the highly-regarded Deputy GM of the water authority, also defends his agencies many other public outreach programs -- an effort that is the envy of every other government agency in the state.

SNWA is practically an employment agency for PR firms.

R and R Partners, under contract to run the water conservation campaign, has a budget of nearly $3.3 million for the year. A Hispanic media outfit has a separate contract to reach Spanish speaking residents, just under $400,000 a year. The firm of Faiss, Foley, Warren spends up to $900,000 to educate the public about water quality. Alpha Communications tells us about the Las Vegas Wash for $150,000.

There are other arrangements for political advice with R and R Public Affairs and Rogich Communications.

Another PR company, Katz and Associates, helps water officials coordinate all of this stuff. Katz has had a contract with SNWA since 1993. Back then it was a modest $164,000 a year. By 2006, it grew to more than $650,000.

Two Katz employees work at SNWA every day. They sit in on meetings and take instructions, just like employees. So why aren't they?

"When you are doing large projects, you don't want to gear up with permanent employees to do large projects. So the initial decision was, we get done with this capital improvement program and that would be a way to separate them," said Wimmer.

But Katz has been part of the team for 15 years, which sounds just about permanent.

Since they are under contract, their pay scale is much higher than for a public employee. One recent billing statement shows the rate for three Katz workers ranges from $73 an hour up to $140 an hour. And when company owner Sara Katz drops in, she bills for $205 an hour.

One of the recent efforts Katz bragged about was teaching cubicle etiquette to SNWA employees. Wimmer says it was a brief lesson.

Sometimes SNWA's outreach efforts are used to bolster support for policy decisions it has already made, using public money to tell the public what to believe.

As an example, a quarter page newspaper ad about why desalting plants are not a solution to our water woes, which, in effect, is an ad in favor of a water pipeline to rural Nevada.

The TV spot essentially tells the public that our tap water tastes good. It has aired thousands of times over the past year.

Should a government agency spend money to convince us the water tastes good?

"Whether you like how it tastes or not is irrelevant. That's a personal issue whether you like it or not," said Wimmer.

"Have you seen the TV spots?" asked Knapp.

"I've never seen that," said Wimmer.

In addition to at least five PR contracts, the water authority and water district have 14 employees with public relations or public affairs responsibilities, not including management.

At the last legislature, nine lobbyists worked for SNWA, including lawyer Joe Guild, who spends thousands of dollars each month traveling to cattle conventions to represent the 1,700 cattle owned by SNWA.

"So are you trying to tell me George that not every 1,700 head of cattle ranch has a lobbyist?" said Assemblyman Joe Hardy.

Hardy is one of several lawmakers who thinks it is time for some outside scrutiny of SNWA's spending, not only on PR but also the proposed pipeline, the cost of which has risen from $1 billion to $3.5 billion and will likely go higher.

"Our audit would be even more enlightening, wouldn't it? How would people react when they see, you do what?" said Hardy.

No one likes to be audited, and in the past SNWA has resisted legislative audits, but support for one is growing in part because SNWA spends so much money at a time when all other government entities are really hurting.

In addition to Joe Hardy, Assemblyman Joe Hogan is calling for more oversight. And Assembly Government Affairs Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick is pushing for it as well.

Ms. Kirkpatrick twice agreed to talk about this story but ducked out both times.

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