HARRISBURG - Despite his call to drastically slash budgets to deal with a worsening recession, Gov. Rendell is paying $100,000 to a Philadelphia political strategist and media consultant to help him with publicity.
The administration has hired Ken Snyder on a monthly retainer of $9,090 between now and Jan. 31 for part-time work, or a minimum of 30 hours a week. Snyder will assist Rendell's Communications Office in the Capitol with media strategy, with a focus on helping provide information about the billions of dollars in federal stimulus aid coming to Pennsylvania.
Top administration officials yesterday defended the expenditure. They said it was necessary to explain to Pennsylvanians exactly what the stimulus money would pay for and how it could help them weather the economic downturn.
"We need to get our message out there to people who can avail themselves of this stimulus money, whether they need it for weatherization projects, road repair, food stamps, or child-care services," said Greg Fajt, Rendell's chief of staff.
Added Snyder: "We now have billions of stimulus dollars to fund thousands of new projects and programs to help people - and that needs to be communicated."
Harrisburg activist Eric Epstein said he didn't buy it.
"When you put the stimulus money out there, it's like red meat to an anorexic shark," said Epstein, founder of RockTheCapital.org. "People are going to swarm to it. You don't have to hire a person to shed light on a feeding frenzy."
Snyder's contract comes as the governor is calling on on every state agency and department, including his own office, to cut its budget by 4.25 percent to help close a projected $2.3 billion shortfall in the current budget.
He has also frozen wages of about 13,000 nonunion state employees, imposed an administration-wide hiring freeze, and said he could not rule out layoffs or furloughs.
Fajt said that Rendell's communications and policy staffs had lost two top-level staffers during the last month and that it "made sense to pay an outside contractor for a finite period of time, without benefits," rather than hire new employees.
Why not just use the governor's Communications Office?
"They are down in body count," Fajt said, adding that the people who remained were "working their tail off."
The contract with Snyder, which began Feb. 17, was awarded through another public-relations firm.
Snyder is considered a subcontractor to the Neiman Group, which has a contract with the administration to provide marketing and communications support.
Snyder said in an interview that he would bill the Neiman Group, which in turn would charge the state for his services. He said his hourly rate would be about $65, half the Neiman Group's.
The contract was arranged that way to get Snyder hired quickly, Fajt said, adding that contracts for similar work were sometimes bundled together. (In this case, both Neiman and Snyder do communications.)
Even with the payments to Snyder, administration officials said yesterday that Rendell had reduced his office's budget more than 4.25 percent and cut payroll.
Snyder, 43, has a long resume, having done public-relations and political-campaign work for high-profile public officials including Rendell, former Mayor John F. Street, and former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo.
Snyder said yesterday that he originally had been asked to come to Harrisburg to work as a full-time employee but could not do so since his firm, Ken Snyder Media, has other clients.
He said that with the state set to receive roughly $10 billion in federal aid over the next two years, the work he was being asked to do was critical in making sure people understand they can benefit from it.
"I am fulfilling a legitimate need for a limited period of time," Snyder said, calling himself "an economic way to fill a void" in the Governor's Office.
Also, he said, when the governor calls for your help, "you don't say no."
Rendell came under fire in January for hiring former Democratic lawmaker Dan Surra - in the midst of a hiring freeze - to a newly created post to help increase ecotourism and development in the northern part of the state.
At the time, Rendell said there would be exceptions to the freeze in special cases.