It is such a bizarre idea, I still can’t believe they were dumb enough to do it.
In a frontal assault on logic and common sense, the public agency that provides housing for the poor actually hired a public relations firm.
The flacks cost the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority more than $90,000. The revelation this week in The Buffalo News was a black eye for the BMHA. Talk about not getting your PR money’s worth.
Correction: Make that not getting our money’s worth. Those are taxpayer dollars that went into the pockets of PR types, including one spinmeister whose hourly rate – $325 – puts plenty of doctors and lawyers to shame. It is also, not incidentally, more than many people who live in public housing make in a week.
Eric Mower & Associates was handed a no-bid contract to media-manage the discovery of asbestos during the decades-overdue demolition of Kensington Heights towers. It stayed on for 16 months, tapping out news releases and fielding routine questions from reporters.
To state what should be self-evident: It is ridiculous for the public housing agency in America’s third-poorest city to spend a dime, much less more than $90,000, for the image-polishing commonly sought by spouse-straying politicians and rehab-bound Hollywood stars. Which raises the question: Who’s running the place – Groucho, Harpo or Chico?
Actually, the buck for this $325-an-hour fiasco stops with the BMHA’s executive director, Dawn Sanders-Garrett, who signed up the PR types without running it past the BMHA board. The BMHA board is controlled by the mayor. The board six years ago hired Sanders-Garrett, whose track record was less than stellar even before this duh-level blunder.
Jimmy Ruffin lives at the downtown Perry Projects with his wife and 14-year-old son.
“It’s just not fair, $325 an hour,” he told me Wednesday. “I’m still dealing with an old wall sink, no cabinet. … I tried to start a Boy Scout troop, to give kids here something to do.”
Monique Russell has lived at Perry Projects for five years. She said that many older tenants “are secluded in their rooms. … They have nowhere to go. They need activities, social events, so they can meet one another.”
The response of BMHA officials to the fiasco bespeaks further cluelessness. Instead of grasping the concept that a public housing agency should not be wasting tax dollars on spin doctors, they decided, in the future, to bid out the PR work. If this kind of thinking passes for inspired at the BMHA, it would not surprise me if some top-tier official believes that the Housing Authority needs a PR firm to put a positive spin on the bad PR that came from hiring a PR firm. It’s a vicious cycle.
Let me repeat: The larger problem isn’t the no-bid PR contract. It’s the notion that hiring a PR firm is a good way to serve your tenants and to spend our money. For her $97,000-a-year salary, Sanders-Garrett should be able to explain how and why the BMHA does things and to find a secretary to fax the occasional news release. That’s how public housing authorities in other upstate cities do things. If Sanders-Garrett can’t manage that, the BMHA needs to find someone who can.
Sanders-Garrett could have spared herself and the BMHA a heap of embarrassment if she had first run the PR idea past a few tenants. The dozen or so Perry Projects residents I spoke with Wednesday all thought of better ways for their landlord to spend $90,000. Suggestions included picnic tables for the public areas, field trips to the zoo and to Fantasy Island for kids, better security lighting, community-bonding bingo nights, senior citizen activities and shopping trips for carless tenants. A unanimous complaint: the notorious months-long delay before an apartment is ready.
“It took us six months to get into a bigger apartment,” Virginia Harrington, who works at a nursing home, told me after picking up her two kids at the bus stop. “Why couldn’t they spend that money on something that helps us?”
Shanta, a nursing home technician, declined to give her last name, fearing BMHA blowback.
“I have three electric sockets out,” she told me. “You call in a work order, it takes about a month before they get here.”
Not even a $325-an-hour image-adjuster could put a shiny glow on that.
I have an idea: The next time the lights go out, tenants should call the BMHA’s PR firm. At those prices, fixing leaky faucets and busted electrical circuits ought to be part of the deal.