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Pension system paid $71K to PR firm to ‘get ahead of opponents and media’

Updated October 7, 2017 - 11:15 pm

Nevada’s Public Employees Retirement System has just spent your money to make sure you have a better opinion of the … Public Employees Retirement System.

Last November, the PERS board hired an out-of-state PR firm to review its communications efforts. One of the goals was to “develop compelling messages to proactively tell the PERS story and get ahead of opponents and the media.” That’d be like using the company credit card to come up with a plan to undermine the owner of your company. As much as the state’s pension system wants to pretend otherwise, government ultimately works for you, the taxpayer.

Taxpayers have poured billions and billions of dollars into PERS to support generous benefits that aren’t available to private-sector workers. And taxpayers are on the hook for billions of dollars worth of promised benefits that PERS won‘t be able to pay.

If you have a negative opinion of this situation, you’re not alone.

A review of 1,750 pages of public records shows that PERS paid more than $71,000 to Jasculca Terman Strategic Communications. The cost included a “strategic audit,” focus groups and interviews with PERS employees and stakeholders.

To get a sense of what a waste this was, consider the $6,000 spent to interview up to 12 “external stakeholders.” That idea makes sense in theory. An out-of-state PR firm should get all perspectives on an organization it knows nothing about before offering feedback.

But PERS arranged just six interviews, including two board members, a current retiree, a union lobbyist and a former PERS executive director. So much for “external.” Only one person interviewed, former Assemblyman Randy Kirner, is likely to have offered any substantive critiques of the system. JT Communications aggregated the answers to protect confidentiality.

The consultants did the 30-minute interviews by phone. Unsurprisingly, the $2,000-an-hour interviews produced just one person who disagreed with this statement: “PERS has been honest with its members and the public about the ways in which the pension crisis is impacting the system.”

Shocker. PERS insiders think PERS is great. No wonder PERS is so resistant to letting outside financial experts sit on the board.

The staff interviews weren’t much better. JT Communications asked PERS executive director Tina Leiss, “What kinds of media headlines are you looking for? What are the kinds of media questions you want to be answering?”

Safe to assume “PERS blows $71K in taxpayer money trying to make itself look good” wasn’t one of her answers.

The final report contained a series of talking points to respond to frequently asked questions. The scripted answers rarely address the tough questions, instead just offering PERS’ version of events. At least politicians don’t make you pay for their spin.

In one answer, JT Communications instructed PERS to use only this message with government retirees and current government workers: PERS members can retire “almost 10 years before the retirement age set by Social Security.” Can’t imagine why they don’t want the general public knowing that.

This spending could just be the beginning. The final report recommends creation of a new staff position to manage communications, including drafting letter-to-the-editor responses to media pieces like this one.

So when PERS responds, ask yourself one question: “How much did it cost me this time?”

Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Nevada section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at vjoecks@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.

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