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Former San Antonio City Councilman Greg Brockhouse is taking aim at VIA Metropolitan Transit, saying it’s “wasting taxpayer dollars” by subcontracting out some marketing and advertising functions to a local firm.
A VIA spokeswoman called Brockhouse’s conclusions “inaccurate and uninformed.”
Brockhouse showed reporters copies of invoices he said he obtained from an unnamed VIA employee that detail the firm’s 2018-2019 charges for time spent traveling to meetings, working on projects, and related conversations. He also criticized the nearly $6,500 VIA spent on a tribute video for Hope Andrade when she left her position as VIA board chair (for the first time) in 2018.
Brockhouse, who narrowly lost a mayoral bid last year and will likely run again next year, is attempting to rally opposition against ballot propositions authorizing the use of a one-eighth-cent sales tax for workforce training and education programs for five years before being directed to VIA in perpetuity.
At a press conference Tuesday at the Crossroads VIA Park and Ride facility at Interstate 10 and 410 in Balcones Heights, he called for an audit of the transit agency’s budget, which “should be scrutinized, especially when VIA wants $45 million” in additional funding per year.
“It is a gross misuse of taxpayer resources,” Brockhouse said of VIA’s expenditures.
VIA and KGBTexas Communications officials confirmed the spending cited by Brockhouse, but said the expenses were aimed at educating residents about VIA’s long-term expansion plans and other initiatives.
“Mr. Brockhouse’s assessment is inaccurate and uninformed regarding the nature of the expenses and the work done by KGB,” said Rachel Benavidez, director of communications for VIA.
She pointed out that as a public agency, VIA’s financial records are open.
“VIA is subject to annual outside audits as a recipient of federal funding and an extensive federal review process – all of which are available via our public information office and are presented in public meetings,” Benavidez said.
Passage of the ballot proposition is vital to VIA, which receives less than three-quarters of a cent of the City’s share of sales tax (1 percent) while most transportation agencies in large Texas metropolitan areas dedicate a full cent.
Brockhouse has been supportive of VIA in the past, voting for increased funding while on City Council and citing the need for better mass transit during his mayoral campaign. However, he said that in light of the pandemic and information contained in the invoices, he’d like to see the agency be more transparent before taxpayers give it more money.
He pointed to a nearly $360 charge for a three-hour “lunch at the Palm” restaurant that a KGBTexas account supervisor had with Benavidez.
Benavidez said that amount reflects the supervisor’s billable time spent at the meeting, not the cost of lunch, which took place at KGBTexas’ office, she said.
Neither VIA nor KGBTexas leadership disputed the invoices.
“The way that we bill is always checked and falls within our contract,” said Katie Harvey, founder and CEO of KGBTexas, adding that it’s industry standard to charge for time spent on the phone, in meetings, and traveling to appointments.
“I don’t think anything that VIA contracts to subcontractors is frivolous,” she said. “It’s work that needs to be done for a large transit network with a large ridership [and] complex group of stakeholders.”
Brockhouse added that VIA attempted to “hide” these expenses by funding them through a separate contract with HDR Engineering.
Those invoices can be obtained through an open-records request, Benavidez said. “There was no effort to conceal any documents or information,” she said. “All this information is public information. They would have been provided had they been requested.”
HDR Engineering was contracted by VIA in 2016 to carry out its long-range plan to expand and improve its service. Part of that plan involved an extensive education and marking campaign, and KGBTexas was hired as a subcontractor. That plan has evolved from “VIA Reimagined” to “Keep SA Moving.”
“VIA hired three firms to carry out long-range comprehensive planning activities in August 2016,” Benavidez said. “The contract for each firm has a maximum value of $15 million (each) and was for a five-year term. The contracts were paid with local funds and expire in December 2021.”
Local marketing professionals told the San Antonio Report that it’s not uncommon for a public agency to hire a private firm to assist with communications. VIA’s in-house communications team consists of five people.
“It’s way more cost-efficient and cost-effective to outsource those [marketing] needs so you’re not carrying overhead on an ongoing basis and use contractors as needed,” Harvey said.
KGBTexas is not involved with the Vote Yes for Transit political action committee that is advocating for approval of the one-eighth- cent sales tax, KGBTexas Vice President Jonathan Gurwitz said.
Because VIA is using taxpayer dollars, less expensive billing policies should be in place, Brockhouse said.
He pointed to charges for Gurwitz’s travel time to and from VIA headquarters. “I think it’s overcharging. I think it’s obscene.”
For its competitive contract with VIA, KGBTexas flattened its staffs’ and executives’ hourly rate to $119, Gurwitz said. Typically he and Harvey charge $200 or more per hour.
During his press conference, Brockhouse also implied that VIA interfered with an economic impact report about public investment in mass transit by injecting its own bias into the process.
“What are your thoughts on perhaps creating an economic impact report informed by VIA, but written and produced by an outside expert, maybe an economist?” reads a Jan. 10 email from VIA strategic officer Marisa Bono to Gurwitz.
“This is documentation that VIA wants to craft an economic impact report,” Brockhouse said.
But that’s not how the email was interpreted by KGBTexas, Gurwitz said. He understood it as a suggestion to contract an economic impact report – a fairly routine practice for long-term planning initiatives. KGBTexas interviewed economists Steve Nivin, chair of the department of economics at St. Mary’s University and director of its SABÉR Research Institute, and Jon Hockenyos of TXP Inc., an Austin-based economic analysis and public policy consulting firm.
Ultimately, TXP had more experience with public transit systems, Gurwitz said. “After that, there was no involvement of VIA, there was no involvement from us.”
The report, completed over the summer, can be viewed here. It found the total economic impact of investing more than $560 million into advanced rapid transit would top $642.9 million per year and add 4,186 jobs over the life of the project.
As a government agency, VIA cannot fund or participate in any political campaigning. It is, however, allowed to provide information to the public.
Correction: HDR Engineering is not based in San Antonio.
Disclosure: VIA Metropolitan Transit has purchased advertising with the San Antonio Report.