Legislators: Met Council spends too much on PR

by John Hageman

The Metropolitan Council’s $1 million public affairs budget has become a target for cuts during heated budget debates in the House, according to the Star Tribune.

The Met Council oversees Metro Transit, and also has a role in regional land use planning.

Although its public affairs funds are a small piece of the overall budget, Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, referred to the Met Council as a “somewhat bloated agency” and is looking for ways to pare down its spending. The agency’s top public affairs official, Steve Dornfeld, made $121,000 last year, which is significantly more than other PR directors at similar state agencies and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, according to the Strib.

“I frankly don’t think it was a bloated department,” Dornfeld told the Star Tribune in reaction to Beard’s remark. “He’s no fan of the Met Council. He’s no fan of transit.”

A suggestion to divert money from the PR budget to other transit funds was included in the transportation finance omnibus bill, which was passed by the House recently and authored by Beard. The bill also cuts $130 million from Met Council general funds, which Met Council Chair Susan Haigh said would result in drastic fare increases or service cuts.

Beard also told the Daily that plans to reorganize the region’s transportation agencies is in the near future. A legislative audit released in January found that although the Met Council is effective, its structure results in a lack of accountability. Beard said a commission to explore how to restructure the Met Council will be formed after the budget debates end.

Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles, who also authored the January report, questioned the necessity of a large public affairs department when the state is facing a projected $5 billion deficit.

“They tell this guy what to say and then he goes out and says it,” Nobles told the Star Tribune. “In these tough economic times, when it may be one of those things nice to have, can we afford it?”