Lawmakers suggest tapping into that money to replace transit cuts.
Late one night at the Capitol, a debate over spending cuts for Twin Cities transit took an unusual turn. The legislator proposing the cuts suggested that a transit agency tap its public affairs budget to keep the buses and trains rolling.
The agency, the Metropolitan Council, spent more than $1 million last year on its public affairs department and related activities. Its top public relations executive hauled in more income -- $121,000 --than former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and considerably more than his counterparts in other state agencies.
Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, called the Met Council a "somewhat bloated agency" that spends money on "things that are not really absolutely necessary in dire times like this."
While the Met's public affairs department makes up a small part of its overall budget, it has come under scrutiny as lawmakers look for ways to cut spending to shrink a $5.1 billion state deficit.
The suggestion to tap the Met's PR budget to replace transit cuts was included in a giant transportation bill passed recently by the Minnesota House of Representatives. The provision is not in the Senate's transportation bill, and the two measures are headed to a conference committee.
To be sure, the Met uses public affairs employees to inform the public about road closures, transit rides, parks, subsidized housing and other topics it oversees as a regional agency. But Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles wonders why the Met and other agencies need so many mouthpieces.
"They tell this guy what to say and then he goes out and says it," Nobles said. "In these tough economic times, when it may be one of those things nice to have, can we afford it?"
Met Council chair Susan Haigh, who took over the top administrative job early this year, said she was unaware of the amount of money spent on public affairs. But she noted that the expense doesn't come close to the $130 million budget cut to the Met Council's transit operation that is also in the House bill.
The Met Council's public affairs department had a payroll of $1,045,127 in 2010. When employees in marketing and the media are included, the total jumps to $1.3 million.
Met Council, MnDOT
The Met's biggest responsibility is planning and operating rail and bus transit in the Twin Cities.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation also has responsibilities for moving commuters, but on statewide highways. It has a budget three times the size of the Met Council's, but spends proportionately less on public affairs.
MnDOT employees working for the public affairs and communications departments were paid $1.5 million in 2010. The figure jumps to $1.9 million when adding in salaries of other "information specialists" from regional offices.
MnDOT's top communications official, Kevin Gutknecht, a spokesman during the aftermath of the Interstate 35-W bridge collapse, made $85,176 last year, according to state payroll records.
In contrast, the Met Council's director of public affairs in 2010, Steve Dornfeld, made $121,292, according to that agency. (Dornfeld said his salary was about $114,000 and the higher figure includes deferred compensation from unused time off.)
Communication directors at the state Agriculture, Natural Resources and Human Services departments earned between $77,000 and $91,000 in 2010, according to the state payroll records. Pawlenty made $119,849.
Dornfeld left the public affairs director post shortly after Haigh took over in January. Haigh said his salary had nothing to do with his departure, which she attributed to "a desire to bring in a new team."
She said she is looking for a new public affairs director. The salary range: $90,000 to $129,000.
Former Met Council chairman Peter Bell declined to comment on public affairs spending during the eight years he was in charge of the agency. Said Bell: "I'm not going to second guess whether it was too high or too low.
Bell said Dornfeld's "primary role was helping the public understand what the Met Council did and why we did it."
Citing public opinion surveys the Met conducted, Bell said, "When I left the council, the public understanding of the council was really at an all-time high.
"And the favorable view they have of the council was also at an all-time high. I think that's a good thing."
Dornfeld said few in the 16-person public affairs department dealt with the media, but rather responded to citizen inquiries for reports that the regional planning agency produced.
"I frankly don't think it was a bloated department," he said, reacting to Beard's remark. "He's no fan of the Met Council. He's no fan of transit."
But Nobles, who produced a critical review of the agency's transit operations in 2010, said the department sometimes seemed more interested in touting agency achievements than helping auditors.
"Within that kind of public affairs, public relations operation at the Met Council, I certainly saw them ensuring that the outgoing chair Peter Bell got a very positive send off," Nobles said. "But is this really the role of that job, when it kind of goes beyond the informational and goes into promotion?"
Concern about setting limits for government public affairs goes back more than 50 years in Minnesota.
A 1965 statute forbade state agencies from using "funds for the payment of the salary or expenses of a publicity representative." The law holds agency heads "personally liable for funds used contrary to this provision."
But it exempted the Department of Transportation, the Department of Employment and Economic Development, the game and fish division of DNR and the tourism office from the prohibition.
It also says all agencies can send out "bulletins or other publicity" to do the job for which they were created.
"I have never found anybody that clearly understood ... what it prevented or allowed," Nobles said of the statute. "The intent and purpose here is kind of lost to history."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504