THE LAST TIME the Philadelphia Water Department came up with a new logo was 1987 when an art school student designed the now-familiar "PWD" logo for $250.

A new logo unveiled in May came with a professional's price tag - $63,000.

It's part of a $350,000 rebranding contract paid to LevLane, an advertising firm that's picked up several significant contracts in recent years to help city agencies appear more customer-friendly.

The new logo, announced last month with little fanfare, scrapped the italics, the acronym and the word "department." The agency now goes by "Philadelphia Water."

About $273,000 has been paid out to LevLane to date, according to the city's online contract database.

The water department spends more on external contracts than any other branch of city services besides Behavioral Health and Human Services, which handle massive state and federal social program contracting. Although the water department has an eight-person in-house public relations team, it has shelled out more than $600,000 in image consulting work in addition to the LevLane contract.

Besides the logo, the LevLane rebranding included surveys of customers "to confirm what we do well and where we need to improve," according to a department press release. "We also conducted a management audit and completed a strategic plan to guide and focus our efforts on becoming a 21st-century utility."

The management audit is not yet complete, a department spokeswoman said.

This is the fourth city department to deliver a contract to LevLane for logo and branding services in the last two years.

Last spring, the embattled Department of Licenses and Inspections paid $100,000 to LevLane to change its brand. The highlight of its logo change was the replacement of the ampersand - for $50,000. LevLane's design changed "L&I" to "L+I."

At the time, department Deputy Commissioner Carlton Williams told that "the new brand and logo was all a part of a broader strategy to encourage the public to use our services and to become our partners in building safety."

LevLane, founded in 1984 by Bruce Lev and David Lane, moved from the Main Line to the Wanamaker Building, across from City Hall, in 2004. It quickly scored a string of lucrative city contracts.

LevLane also handles an ongoing $3.4 million contract for the Streets Department, where Williams was once commissioner, which includes logo changes, the city's UnLitter Us public service announcements and recycling education services. The Revenue Department also contracted with LevLane for a $55,000 rebranding project.

When reached by phone two weeks ago, a LevLane employee, who declined to give his name, said the agency is still working with Philadelphia Water. But he said he just started working on the team handling the water account and didn't go into specifics about the current work.

"All of those [logo] changes, simplifying names or adding plusses, are what is visibly seen," he said, but the firm's work goes much deeper. "We do everything from message development, internal and external communication to social media, and media buying."

Water department spokeswoman Laura Copeland reiterated that sentiment in an email that detailed the entire rebranding effort, noting that the $273,000 has been spent over the last three fiscal years.

"The rebranding process was timed to occur slowly over three fiscal years such that all of the concurrent management development programs could be launched together over time," Copeland wrote.

In addition to the LevLane contract, Philadelphia Water also doled out:

* $150,000 to Louis Cook Design for assorted "graphic design services."

* $100,000 to the Blake + Barancik Design Group Inc. for "Design and Communications" work.

* $100,000 to "environmental design firm" Cloud Gehshan Associates to design new signage.

* $100,000 to videographer GreenTreks Network, Inc. for a documentary about the Department's green initiatives.

* $99,000 to Simon PR for "Media and Marketing."

* $50,000 to Karen Friedman for "Media Training."

* $32,000 to Daniel Pohlig for "Messaging and Blogging Services."

Defending the $350,000 contract with LevLane, the water department's public affairs director Joanne Dahme said that her staff is too small to handle the rebranding project, which included extensive internal and external surveys about how the department functions and interacts with the ratepayers and partners - and wide-ranging improvement recommendations.

It has led to an overhaul of the way the department deals with the public, she said, particularly online.

"Things have been on our wishlist for a long time, but having a consultant like LevLane kind of gave us the boost because we did need some outside expertise," Dahme said.

The public affairs department has a budget of $11.2 million in 2014-2015, but that includes $8.1 million in contracts. It has eight public relations professionals on staff, in addition to a couple dozen call center, education and administrative staffers.

The department also has six contracts, worth a combined $1.16 million, to overhaul and program the little-used Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, adjacent to the popular Water Works Restaurant. The largest of those contracts, worth $400,000, went to local artist Victoria Prizzia for an interactive sand sculpture called "Flow" and other exhibits.

"The Water Department has historically been considered a 'Cadillac agency,' " said Phil Goldsmith, former managing director for Mayor John Street. "Its money doesn't come from the city; it comes from ratepayers paying their water bills. They don't like to be put under the same strictures as other departments. It's a little bit of the idea that 'this is our money.' "

LevLane provided Goldsmith, a friend of founder David Lane, with free office space after he left the city in 2006. Goldsmith said, however, that he had nothing to do with helping the agency secure city work and has not been involved with the company for "three years."