PR firms make thousands from taxpayers

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) - News 4 Investigates has discovered that some local municipalities and at least one public authority are paying public relations firms tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxpayer money for work that some may suggest could be accomplished using their own employees.

In one case, the PR firm used by a town is owned by the daughter of an employee of a local industrial development agency.

News 4 has found that the Niagara Falls Water Board spends about $30,000 a year in a contract with E3Communications to send out press releases and public notifications. In a copy of the Board’s resolution on the matter, they list other services that E3Communications performs such as “coordinate news conferneces”, “attend board meetings”, “assist with web site content and updating”.

But why couldn’t the authority send out its own emails?

“We are on a limited staffing and we reduced our staff quite a bit,” explained said

Niagara Falls Water Board Executive Director Paul Drof defended using an outside firm, “We are on a limited staffing and we reduced our staff quite a bit,” he explained. He added that the PR firm has an Albany bureau, which helps the water board to find grants.

“What grants may be available to us, what programs are coming down from Albany or from the EPA,” he said.

Drof says if he hired a full time staffer to do it, it would cost more than $30,000 in healthcare or retirement costs. “When we stop our relationship, we don’t have those costs that we have to look at over the long run,” Drof said.

Those are the same reasons the Erie County Water Authority gave News 4 when asked why they are paying nearly $90,000 since January 2013 for PR work, also with E3Communications. Through Freedom of Information, News 4 obtained a copy of the contract. The authority “is very pleased with and believes its ratepayers are well served by the public relations, government affairs and customer communications being provided by E3 Communications.”

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority no longer has a PR contract. Officials came under scrutiny for spending $90,000 on what it called an “emergency situation” three years ago. In 2011, asbestos was found illegally disposed of at the old Kensington Heights housing project, and the BMHA felt a public relations firm was the best way to get the proper information out to concerned neighbors.

News 4 Investigates found the Orleans County towns of Shelby and Ridgeway have spent thousands with a PR Firm called Mindful Media, operated by Andina Barone. As the Medina Journal-Register was first to report, she is the daughter of Gabrielle Barone, the Vice President of the Orleans County Industrial Development Agency, an agency that helps decide which towns get new developments.

When asked if that is a potential conflict of interest, the attorney representing both towns said it is not. “The person you’re speaking of is an employee of the IDA. She has no vote. She has no say. She reports to the CEO of the IDA, so she can tell the CEO everything she would want him to say, he ultimately has the final say on IDA decisions along with its board,” said attorney Emilio Colaiacovo.

The cost of the contract the two towns have with Mindful Media is $6,000, but it may have paid off. The two town supervisors split the cost because they felt they weren’t being heard in the debate over dissolving the Village of Medina. They feared their tax rates would skyrocket, but after the PR firm created a special website and hotline with information, hundreds turned out last week for a meeting where the town residents did have a voice.

“When each taxpayer is going to see a possible 46 percent increase in their taxes, the town has to spend resources in order to protect its taxpayers and they believed at the time that it was a prudent use of resources,” Colaiacovo argued.

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