City Council's decision to spend up to $100,000 on "strategic communications" in the face of further city budget cuts may have irked some of its members, but Council leaders say tough financial times only enhance the need to connect with the public.

Council President Anna C. Verna on Tuesday approved a contract for Ross Associates Inc. to provide Council up to $100,000 worth of services including "issues management, crisis communications, special events, media relations, community engagement, and message development."

Ross was the only bidder for the work, advertised on the city's Web site for two weeks in October. Publicist Kevin Feeley said he withdrew after questions surfaced about the contract's timing.

While Verna has the final say, the move to hire Ross won support from Council leaders, who said they liked what they got last spring and summer when Ross, led by founder William R. Miller IV, helped them shape their message on the 2010 budget. Ross was paid just over $25,000 for that contract.

"They were very helpful to us during the budget process," said Democratic Majority Whip Darrell L. Clarke. He said he expected Council to hold budget hearings in the neighborhoods, and Miller is expected to be instrumental in that. Council would spend only the part of the $100,000 it required, he said.

Councilman Frank DiCicco said he had no problem with the work of Ross, but wondered about the timing of a such a contract while the economy still staggers.

"I think it just reinforces in the minds of taxpayers that government is disconnected," DiCicco said. "In these tough economic times, when we're trying to figure out how to get through this year, and we have to deal with libraries and recreation centers . . . I didn't think it was an appropriate gesture to the taxpayers."

Council members or their aides now handle public relations. The exception is Anthony Radwanski, who works out of Verna's office and is paid $96,000.

Mayor Nutter has announced a $31 million hole in this year's budget, and has asked departments to reduce their budget proposals 7.5 percent from last year. Council members expect that hole to get worse, with a projected $25 million in annual labor savings slipping away as the four municipal unions continue to work without contracts.

Verna said Miller helped bring community leaders to public meetings during the budget process, which would be critical this year.

"We have the money, and if things are going to be as bad as we think they will be . . . it will be money well spent," said Verna.

Council has lagged behind the administration in cutting its budget, forgoing furloughs or layoffs, and keeping its spending essentially flat. Spending in the $14.6 million budget was down by about $7,000.

Council members have been publicly divided on issues such as giving up city cars (most didn't), taking pay cuts (half did), and accepting a 5 percent cost-of-living increase (most decided to give it back to charities or the general fund, but it took a month to decide). The member base salary is $117,990 per year.

Council put the contract up for bid on the city's contract Web site for two weeks in October, asking for a proposal of between $80,000 and $100,000. Two companies responded - Ross Associates and Bellevue Communications, run by Feeley, who has served among other positions as Gov. Rendell's spokesman.

Feeley said he offered the city a reduced hourly rate of $100 - he would normally charge about $225 - because of the beneficial publicity his firm would enjoy from the contract. Ross offered rates from $150 up to $200 an hour for a "project manager."

Once he saw newspaper articles questioning the contract's timing, Feeley said, he withdrew without pressure from anyone.

"I said, you know what, I don't need this," Feeley said. "I saw where this was headed."

Miller, in an interview, said it was important to distinguish public relations - the public response to various situations - from strategic communications, which he described as designing, developing, and delivering a message to the public and press over the long haul.

"They're under a microscope," Miller said of Council. "Who gives them time to go through the complexities of these issues before they're forced to express them publicly? To me, it's an honor to get this contract. I love challenges, and it's a great challenge given the upcoming and impending deficit and the challenges that they're facing."

Miller has done extensive work for the School Reform Commission - paid $190,000 for his work from June 2008 through June 2010.

The Council contract runs from Nov. 1, 2009, to Oct. 31, 2010.

Council's Democratic majority leader, Marian B. Tasco, described Miller as "a dear friend." But Tasco said that did not get him the job. She noted that the contract was put out to bid, and said these types of contracts had not been offered publicly in the past.

"I think anyone who's doing business would like to feel comfortable with someone they're doing business with," Tasco said.

Philadelphia NAACP president J. Whyatt Mondesire, a close friend of Miller's, said the amount of the contract was "negligible" in the scope of the city budget. He noted that the mayor has a five-person press office, and City Council's 17 members have only one person.

"City Council needs all the help it can get," Mondesire said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.