As DeKalb County was gearing up for the announcement of its federal penalty for excessive sewer spills, the county had quietly hired a former reporter and politician to tackle the task of educating the public about the watershed woes.
Steen Miles, a retired journalist, former Georgia state senator and MARTA communications director, is on a four-month, $35,000 contract to help manage the communications campaign about the coming water and sewer rate hike.
Earlier this month, the county’s Board of Commissioners approved $1.345 billion in improvements to DeKalb’s water and sewer system. The improvements will be financed by an 11-percent rate hike each year for three years beginning in 2012.
Miles said she was hired to provide “seamless communication” for the county. Her contract runs from Nov. 21 to March 22. She would not comment further about her role with DeKalb County.
“I’m a 30-year resident of DeKalb,” Miles said. “I don’t know why this is a story.”
Known as The Newslady, Miles is also a contributor to The Champion. She served as a state representative from 2005-07, and in 2008 Miles unsuccessfully ran for the DeKalb CEO position against Burrell Ellis and three others.
While Miles was in her fourth week strategizing for the watershed management department, Ellis announced his proposed 2011 budget, which calls for a tax increase of 2.32 mills, or $264 a year for an average $190,000 house.
During that presentation to the board of commissioners, Ellis said he had cut 456 positions from the county government in 2010. One of those positions is for an unfilled public information officer for the watershed management department. The department also has a communications writer.
The money for Miles’ pay comes from water and sewer bills, which due to rate hikes, will be going up for the next four years.
According to her contract, Miles’ objective is to “give the administration and commissioners the tools to help DeKalb citizens and other interested parties to understand the Consent Order and the necessity for the rate increases while protecting the integrity of the administration.”
The consent order refers to DeKalb’s agreement to pay a $453,000 penalty from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for excessive sewage spills. The county also agreed to spend $600,000 to remove debris from several rivers and creeks.
Less than a month after Miles signed her communications consultant contract, Ellis chose Burke Brennan to permanently fill the chief communications officer position. Brennan had been the interim chief since former communications chief Sheila Edwards resigned in July. With his promotion, Brennan heads a four-person communications department.
Miles was hired to work behind the scenes to help the county develop a strategy for educating the public about the billion-dollar watershed improvement projects. Informing the staff, public and media about the watershed project and the associated rate hike is temporarily beyond the capabilities of his department, Brennan said.
“During this critical period of time we needed some very specific assistance,” Brennan said. “We needed the help, we got the help.”