The Spokane City Council has spent nearly $500,000 this year to hire consultants.
They include $7,200 for a clinical psychologist to help council members communicate, nearly $47,000 for a grant writer and administrator for the police department and $60,000 for a “facilitator” to lead discussions about wastewater issues.
While most city officials defend using consultants to streamline government, the practice has vocal critics.
“We avoid hiring extra employees,” said City Manager Roger Crum. “It’s what everyone is telling us to do.”
“That is absolutely ridiculous,” said Councilman Chris Anderson, who opposes hiring any consultants. “We have people in elected and appointed positions that can do this job.
“We’re shirking our responsibility by not taking to the task ourselves.”
The council’s hiring of a Seattle firm to lead discussions about city services angered a small group of residents last month. They picketed the consultant’s first meeting, waving signs that called the council arrogant and the consultant’s work a glorified “glamor school.”
“Isn’t it outrageous we have to pay someone to tell us that we need new streets?” said Connie Smith, who joined pickets outside the Spokane Opera House. Smith, a county resident and city property owner, is the state director of United We Stand America, a group born during Ross Perot’s presidential campaign.
Attempts to compare Spokane’s consultant spending with cities of similar size were unsuccessful. Neither Boise nor Tacoma could come up with comparable numbers.
Spokane’s recent money problems, critics say, make consultant spending even more upsetting.
“We’ve had to impose a hiring freeze, and we’re calling for a reduction in work force,” Anderson said. “We’re facing the very real possibility of potential layoffs. “It’s mind-boggling to argue there still is money for these consultants.”
About half the consulting contracts aren’t paid out of the city’s general budget, but from self-supporting budgets such as the solid waste or water departments, said budget manager Ken Stone.
“The problem we have is in the general fund,” Stone said.
Some money for consultants comes from state or federal taxpayers.
The state recently gave the city $60,000 to hire a consultant to lead discussions about ways to protect ground water. The city is just taking on the role of lead agency for the study, city officials said.
State taxpayer money is still taxpayer money, critics shoot back.
Mayor Jack Geraghty and Councilwoman Phyllis Holmes say contracting for outside work actually saves money - something even more crucial in times of budget problems.
“Basically, it’s an economical way to do lots of things,” Geraghty said. “The problem is, you use the word ‘consultant’ and everyone throws up their hands. When you say ‘privatization’ it’s OK.”
“Anytime you can get somebody as a private contractor, you should do it,” Holmes said. “You have no responsibility to them or for them. It’s a whole lot cheaper.”
Consultants don’t get medical and dental benefits. Also, the city doesn’t have to pay Social Security or workman’s compensation.
Those costs tack on an average of 25 percent to a salary, Stone said. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons (hiring consultants) makes sense,” he said.
Besides, a consultant doesn’t stay around after the work is completed.
Hiring someone full time to do the same job means that person becomes “dead wood for part of the year,” Holmes said. “When the task is done, this person goes away.”
Critics counter the money-saving argument by saying many of the consultants aren’t needed.
The council in January hired California consultant and psychologist Bill Mathis to help the city set priorities. After Mathis watched several tapes of council meetings, he decided the group’s biggest problem was poor communication.
“If we have to hire someone to tell our City Council how to talk to each other, they shouldn’t be running for office in the first place,” Smith said.
Police Chief Terry Mangan said his contract with Melissa Sullivan to write and administrate grants for the department more than pays for itself.
Sullivan, who’s had the contract two years, played an essential role in helping police get more than $2 million in federal money, including $1.9 million to put more officers on the street.
She also keeps the grants active, meeting deadlines for reports and new applications.
“The business of writing and managing grants has become a very specialized area,” Mangan said. “Melissa’s track record is excellent.”
It would be nice to have Sullivan on the staff full time, he said, but the nature of federal and state monies doesn’t make that possible.
“Grant availability goes up and goes down,” Mangan said, adding Sullivan is paid based on how much work she does - and how much money she brings in. Her contract allows for no more than $46,800 a year.
Anderson and Smith argued there must be a city employee who could do the same work or even residents with a particular expertise who might volunteer.
“I’d rather put another cop on the street and let an administrator write some grants,” Anderson said.
“For a really special issue, you might need to bring in an outsider,” Smith said. “But I’d think you might want to exhaust the local people who, if were asked, could give the same information.
“I think it’s wasteful.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Spokane’s professional service contracts