Ask the Blog UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Friday, May 30, 2008

Ask the Blog UPDATE

Posted By on Fri, May 30, 2008 at 11:19 AM

Another edition of Ask the Blog, for a reader who requested more information about Central Arkansas Water's contract with a new ad/PR adviser, Advantage Communications, and, for policy work, with Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods.

Advantage will receive a $4,000 monthly retainer, in addition to charges for specific projects. This compares with $5,000 a month plus charges for the previous ad/PR rep, Heathcott Associates. Here's the contract.

Heathcott was paid, in sum, $263,372 in 2003; $194,839 in 2004; $203,506 in 2005; $153,626 in 2006; $147,848 in 2007, and $103,418 in 2008.

Marie Crawford of CAW said Cranford will be paid by the hour on a per-project basis for support in "public policy analysis and development and public policymaker and stakeholder outreach (consumer, customer, ratepayer, watershed landowners, public officials, community groups, etc.)"

UPDATE: Check the jump for a statement from Crawford answering questions posed by readers.



In the following narrative, we attempt to answer questions that have appeared on the Arkansas Times Blog and to provide information on the purpose of Central Arkansas Water's communications programming and expenditures.   Some bloggers may be interested in particular topics so we have attempted to categorize the information under title headings.

Communications Expenditures
The majority of Central Arkansas Water's expenditures for communications have been for printed pamphlets, brochures, panels, and other publications for customer, consumer, and public purposes.  The yearly expenditure amounts include not only the layout and design of the pieces but also the printing costs.  The yearly amounts also reflect the $5,000 per-month retainer fee that we have paid in the past to the agency of record.

Duties of CAW Communications Staff
CAW has a one-person Communications Office.  The staff writes our news releases and composes copy for the majority of our brochures, pamphlets, panels, and other publications.  We receive assistance from the agency primarily for actual electronic layout and design.

We maintain our web site in-house, as well.  We are planning to update the site to make it more user-friendly in terms of the links under which customers can locate certain information.  In developing the web site, we placed information under certain "logical" links.  We think we can improve to better serve customers through the site.  We are planning a more aggressive effort to increase customer awareness of the information on the site and plan to provide a link for customers to ask questions on-line and get responses.  Right now, we can receive inquiries through a "customer service link."  So we agree with the blogger that our web site can use improvements and we are in the planning stage, at this point.  At the same time, we are proud of the amount and types of information that we provide on the site.

The Communications Office handles inter-governmental relations, consumer and special research, internal reporting, certain internal communications for employees and the Board of Commissioners, the water education program, news media inquiries, and customer complaints for the management staff. The office also is responsible for updating certain links on the web site and working to foster -- among ratepayers, consumers, and the public -- an understanding of the utility's operations and role in public health and quality of life.

Annual Water Quality Report
We publish our Annual Water Quality Report similar to the frequency and schedule that a private business publishes an annual operations and financial report.  The "2007" reports comes out in "2008."

Our 2006 Annual Water Quality Report is the most recent on our web site because the 2006 report is the most recent report.  The 2007 report, by federal mandate, is due out by July 1.  We will release the report in June of this year, as is our practice in past years.  The report is "one year behind" because the report must contain a full year of analytical data and a full-year of compliance records.  The "2007" report that we issue later this month will contain information for the year ended December 31, 2007. The "2007" report will contain "2007" compliance data.

90% of the information in the Annual Water Quality Report is mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  USEPA mandates "verbatim" language.  We do not have a say about the actual words in most of the text in the report.  The format of the charts is a directive of USEPA.

Focus of Expenditures
We produce a comprehensive program of printed brochures and pamphlets__for our customers__rates (North Little Rock and Little Rock__separate rate schedules); customer service policies; aquatic nuisance species; conservation tips; bill payment methods; fire hydrant testing schedules for Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Sherwood; freeze precautions; customer assistance program; water meter information; lake rules and regulations; billing statement inserts; etc.  For most printed items, we produce a Spanish-language version, as well.  We also did a web-site update in 2003.

A quick visit to our Customer Service Center at 221 East Capitol Avenue in Little Rock will provide a very good demonstration of how we spend the dollars.  We have a display of the various customer/consumer information pieces that we produce and update regularly.

In 2003, we produced and ran television messages for the Peak Demand Management Public Education Program.  The highest-volume usage on our system is during the summer months.  Systemwide usage doubles during the summer in comparison to the fall and winter months.  5 a.m. - 7 a.m. during the summer months is usually when peak usage occurs on a given day; the volume of usage during this time period can stress our public water system (pumping and pipeline facilities) to near maximum capacity and can cause low pressure problems in areas with high usage by automatic sprinklers. Our Peak Demand Management Public Education Program sought to reach customers through several media:  Letters to sprinkler meter customers, television messages, billboards, post cards, community events, etc.  The goal was to get customers with "automatic sprinkler systems" to set their automatic timers to activate outside the 5 a.m. - 7 a.m. window during the summer months.  Since 2003, we each year have sent a Reminder Letter to sprinkler meter customers west of Interstate 430, where the highest volume usage is for automatic sprinkler systems.

The Peak Demand Management Public Education Program is necessary to ensure dependable water pressure for all pockets of our service area and necessary to minimize the need for the installation of expensive transmission mains within existing service area.

We also have purchased advertising space for public notices on public hearings related to such issues as rate adjustment proposals and watershed management for Lake Maumelle.

Most public water suppliers inherently are monopolies.  Central Arkansas Water is a monopoly within its service boundaries, but being such does not lessen our obligation to provide customers with information about their water service__quality, rates, affordability, dependability, policies, service changes, etc.  We could sit back and have communications as an "afterthought" of our daily operations, but that approach would not sit well with our regulators or our customers.

With regard to water quality, we -- like other public water suppliers across the United States -- are under federal and state mandates to provide information on a yearly basis to customers.  With regard to other aspects of service, we have the local obligation to provide the information. Customers have "why" and "when" questions about their service.  We are a "local water service provider," home-grown and home-owned.  We strive to extend a high level of service that reflects the nature of our operations and governmental structure.  Communications is an integral part of meeting the needs of our customers, and our goal is to have the information they need and want readily available for them, or even to provide it in advance.

We are ever conscious of the diversity of ratepayers and consumers that we serve.  The needs are different in terms of information and, in certain ways, the types of customer services they require of us.  Our communications programming is our way of meeting many of the needs and our way of reaching out to customers.

In serving our customers, we strive to go above and beyond in every way -- water quality, customer service, prudent use of ratepayer funds, and communicating with customers.

For example, the federal and state mandates are for us to mail an Annual Water Quality Report to all "metered locations" and, "if possible," to reach all "consumer locations."  There are approximately 25,000 families who are within our service area, who drink CAW water, but who do not pay a bill directly to us.  They live in apartments or rental housing.  The need, even the right, for these families to know about the quality of their drinking water is no less than it is for the families that pay a bill directly to us.  As the federal and state mandates encourage, we send the water quality information to all "consumer locations."  We send the report to the additional 25,000 families.

Our communications programming is not to "spin" a message but to provide information that our customers have requested or need to know.  Our consumer opinion ratings consistently reflect an appreciation for our providing this information and for our reaching out through communications programming.

As always, we are -- and should be -- interested in improving all aspects of our service to the community, and recommendations are greatly appreciated.

The questions and comments on the Arkansas Times Blog have provided this particular opportunity to share information and ask questions, and we appreciate this opportunity.  Our intent with this narrative was to answer as many as possible of the questions on the Blog.

Thank you.



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