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A Bridge Over Troubled PR

It was quite the bash, considering it was the opening of a temporary bridge. Neighbors sipped sparkling champagne, waved little American flags, and cut a ceremonial ribbon at the provisional 17th Street Causeway bridge. The twenty people who gathered can also brag forevermore that they were the first humans across the impermanent structure. And the tribute to the constructors is official -- the Sun-Sentinel memorialized it with a lead sentence that could have been written by a publicity agent: "Let's hear it for DOT."

Residents who live nearby organized the little affair to praise the much-beleaguered Florida Department of Transportation for a job well-done. Never mind that the opening was five months later than promised. At least in the eyes of these few folks, the department had succeeded in keeping traffic moving and had kept dust to a minimum. The DOT had also succeeded in spending tax dollars on a unexplored aspect of the job -- pandering to the public.

The warm fuzzies expressed that day atop the bridge signal a real public relations coup for the DOT, orchestrated over the past nine months by veteran PR man Neil Birenbaum. Taxpayers were scalped for $583,816.53.

The half-million dollars is being doled out by DOT for a private public relations firm to "keep the community informed" about replacing the 44-year-old bridge, which has its east foot in one of Fort Lauderdale's richest and oldest neighborhoods. Construction began with the erection of the temporary bridge so that four lanes of traffic will continue across the bridge while the old one is torn down and the new one goes up.

Neighborhood and business groups across Fort Lauderdale have listened to Birenbaum's presentations and seen the colorful, computerized "photographs" of the proposed new bridge stretching across the Intracoastal waterway.

"How much do you have to explain in replacing a bridge?" asks Kurt Wenner, a senior analyst with Florida TaxWatch. "If this were a whole new project, I could understand the need for public education. But what's so different in what they're doing? They're just replacing an existing bridge."

Birenbaum's office near the bridge has a secretary, is open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and includes a miniature model of the new bridge. A small TV sits on a table and airs a short video that shows only waterfront pictures of Fort Lauderdale and talks about the city's sophistication and "extraordinary works of art." There is also a conference room with computer-generated pictures of what the new bridge will look like framed and hanging on the walls.

Two hundred thousand color brochures explaining the construction project (budgeted cost: $15,540) were printed and either mailed or distributed to residents and businesses near the bridge in southeast Fort Lauderdale. There are still 500,000 "Dear Neighbor" letters to come (budgeted cost: $130,076) and 1000 press kits to be compiled (budgeted cost: $900).

Birenbaum's contract with DOT covers his salary ($182,801.85 for 39 months), overhead ($180,315.74 for benefits and insurance), a fixed fee to Birenbaum's employer, David Fierro & Associates ($43,574.11), and expenses ($177,124.82 for a car, computer, mobile phone, printing, and postage).

This expense is part of the $7.5 million consultant contract for engineering, construction, and inspection services. That amount is over and above the $62 million needed to construct the bridge and the $6 million needed to erect and eventually dismantle the temporary bridge.

"Lots of times it's a good idea to hire a firm if you don't have expertise in an area, but what are they trying to relate?" wonders Neil Crispo, at Florida TaxWatch. Crispo laughed, remembering Broward County's reputation for it's free-spending ways, specifically noting that county commissioners paid $120 million for a plot of land at Port Everglades that was appraised at a third the price. "You have a notorious community down there."

Barbara Kelleher, one of two DOT spokespeople in Broward County already on the state payroll, insists that the added expense of Birenbaum is needed because she and her colleague must oversee "every other project" in five counties -- Broward, Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River.

"It's a large expense, but the work needs to be done," Kelleher says of the public relations. "This is the best way we've found to keep the community informed."

Even Birenbaum, a former DOT employee, acknowledges he's got a good thing going.

"I consider myself very fortunate to have access to all these resources," he says. "When we're investing so much of the public's money for a new bridge, this represents such a small piece of the pie. I think they get a big bang for their buck."

Resting atop the plexiglass-enclosed model in Birenbaum's office is a large three-ring binder holding daily newspaper stories about the bridge and construction, as well as other items Birenbaum thought interesting, including the boat crash near Sunrise Boulevard that killed five people and the county squabbles over the minority-owned hotel being built at Port Everglades.

Beside the binder is a pink clipboard with the names of people who supposedly stopped by for a visit. One afternoon last week, the list of visitors bore five names -- all written by the same hand. The office secretary says she merely copied from April's list the names of people who had actually visited in May. But calls to four of the five people listed revealed one man had visited six weeks earlier, and one man says he never visited at all.

Other recent DOT projects did not benefit from private, full-time public relations professionals. Not the Hollywood Boulevard expansion at I-95, not the A1A expansion north of Sunrise Boulevard. Nor do other public agencies, such as Broward County or the School Board, hire outside PR firms.

"That's insidious," proclaimed Tom Lander, president of the Park East Civic Association which is near I-95 in Hollywood. "The only purpose I can see is... there are going to be a lot of people inconvenienced and angry, and it's a place for them to come and calm down. I don't think it's worth $600,000 of my taxpayer money.

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Lucy Chabot

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