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Sanitation District May Seek Budget Hike for PR

April 21, 1988|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The Ventura Regional Sanitation District today will consider boosting its public relations budget by almost one-half just months after financial hardships forced it to almost double its trash-dumping fees.

The district wants to increase its public relations contract with a local firm by $48,000 for a total of $138,000. By contrast, the Santa Barbara Public Works Department, which administers all of that county's landfills and sewage treatment facilities, has no budget for public relations. The mammoth Los Angeles County Sanitation District spends between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.

The money earmarked by the Ventura district for public relations includes fees paid to the Oxnard-based Murphy Organization, an additional $20,000 paid to a free-lance technical writer, and a portion of the salary of a district official. District figures project expenses of $115,000 over a 15-month period, but the proposed increase would boost the total to about $163,000.

"It takes a lot of effort to keep everybody advised and informed. . . . This is a minimal expenditure in terms of the total budget," said Jim Jevens, the Ventura district's public information and personnel officer. The district's annual budget is about $20 million.

Cites 'Main Role'

"Our main role is developing and implementing a specific communications plan," said Madeline Murphy, vice president and creative director of the Murphy Organization, the public relations firm that has the sanitation district contract. "We've helped to stimulate a dialogue between member agencies, the county, the cities, as well as the general public." The proposal has come under fire from Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, who said it makes the district's claims of fiscal difficulties "less credible."

"I don't think that kind of money should be spent on that kind of activity when . . . just a few months ago the district was complaining about the lack of money," Flynn said Tuesday.

A longtime critic of the sanitation district, Flynn said he has written a letter to the Ventura County Grand Jury outlining his complaints.

Ventura County Planning Director Tom Berg, who criticized the district earlier this year for doubling its trash-dumping rates, said he questions why many tasks done by the public relations firm could not be accomplished by the district's in-house staff.

District officials counter that their staff is spread too thin as it is. The district has about 100 employees, 30 of whom work in administrative capacities, Jevens said.

The district embarked on a big public relations push last year after deciding it needed an image change. A "strategic plan" developed by the Murphy Organization noted at the time that "there are indications that the Ventura Regional Sanitation District is not perceived by some as being Ventura County's leader in waste management."

A highly publicized squabble with county government officials over the distribution of tax fees and the county's threat to withdraw from the district did little to improve the image of the sanitation district. The district runs the Coastal Landfill near Oxnard, the Tolland Road Landfill in Santa Paula, monitors the now-closed Bailard Landfill across from Coastal and runs the county's sewage treatment facilities.

The Bailard site, which is slated to reopen this fall for five years when the Coastal Landfill becomes full, sits over a potential drinking-water source and is not a viable long-term dump site, said county officials, who are now casting about for another site.

Private Competition

The district also faces competition from a private landfill operator, the giant Waste Management Co., which wants to run the county's next landfill and has an option to lease a site in Weldon Canyon at the mouth of the Ojai Valley. But any prospective site must endure extensive environmental and governmental scrutiny and the issue is far from resolved.

The district's $90,000 contract with the Murphy Organization, which runs from February, 1987, to June, 1988, is supposed to buy a program to enhance its image and maintain a "positive leadership role necessary to carry the district in potential future solid waste and waste-water management issues," according to the Murphy report. But district officials say that $48,000 more is now needed to see that project through June.

In a typical month, the firm confers with district officials, writes and produces the district's bimonthly newsletter, writes news releases and draws up a one-page summary of district meetings that is distributed to elected officials and citizens groups. It also helps plan special events, such as a district retreat that officials took in Santa Barbara in February.

The district is charged for such tasks as clipping newspaper articles, transcribing tapes of radio shows and researching issues.

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