SEATTLE--When the city of Seattle cannot solve a problem alone, departments turn to consultants as hired guns with silver bullets that can cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Over the last two months, the Problem Solvers have poured through hundreds of pages of contracts to see how the city spent some $600,000,000 on outside consultants in the last few years.
It feels so good to be green
The city's sustainability department spent $26,000 on a two minute long public service announcement. The commercial praises Seattle locals for being green and using plug-in hybrids and insulation.
Mayor McGinn questioned why the money was spent.
"I have to admit, when I saw it, I winced a little and I was waiting for this interview to happen after I saw it," he said.
The ad runs on the Seattle Channel and the jingle alone cost taxpayers $3,500. Lead singer for The Presidents of the United State of America, Chris Ballew, wrote and sang the jingle. Jill Simmons runs the department and says the commercial is a good return on investment and that it is memorable.
"I challenge you not to be singing it after you've listened to it," she said.
Outside help for boats
Contracts show that the planning department paid $172 an hour to an outside consultant to come up with the definition of a house barge. The overall contract spent around $10,000 to create a temporary definition for Lake Union and other waterways.
"It's basically a licensing process," said Bryan Stevens, who manages part of the department.
Stevens deflected criticism of the cost of the definition because it helps the city have proper legal liability according to new state law and that no city staff member is properly equipped to define a house barge.
"If you're a naval architect, you have the expertise to evaluate that. So, we don't have that expertise," Stevens said.
A consultant contract with the finance department helped 24 city workers learn "clear business writing skills," including use of practical grammar and how to properly punctuate. Mayor McGinn defended the contract and workers.
"They may have deficiencies in their skills, but they're otherwise good employees. We want to make sure we get the skills they need," he said.
Then there are the big dollar contracts that can create big change. One consultant got almost $500,000 to examine SDOT and expose a number of problems, including a lack of accountability for road maintenance.
David Jones with the audit department says the changes that could come from the consultant are worth the costs.
"Somebody has to go out there and makes sure that stuff gets done to improve the system," he said.
Lingering logo questions
SDOT also has to worry about new parking rate changes and how to get that information out to the public.
"There aren't signs available off the shelf that convey all of this kind of information," said Mike Estey, a manager with the department.
A consultant contract shows that SDOT spent more than $14,000 to create parking logos seen on the iconic green parking meters.
That money is only for the design of the graphics, not manufacturing or installation.
Another consultant was paid $11,000 for design and consultation on the city's employee donation program "Seattle Shares."
Once again, McGinn brushed aside questions, saying he trusts his departments to make the right call.
"We could spend a hell of a lot more money reviewing, putting every contract through layers and layers of review and that would cost time and money as well, he said.
The mayor did say city can do a better job to cut the fat and the waste.
"I'm sure the folks in those departments, now that you've done this will be a little more cautious now about how much money they want to spend on contracts," he said.