PLEASANTON -- Water officials have a solution for the onslaught of complaints about their tough drought restrictions: better PR!

Facing outrage over drought penalties for people who fail to slash water use, and swamped by complaint calls to its drought hotline, the City Council agreed Tuesday to pay a public relations contractor up to $200,000 to explain its program.

Other Tri-Valley water suppliers in Dublin and Livermore face the same pressure to get local residents and businesses to cut water use by 25 percent because of sharp reductions in state water shipments.

However, the others aren't planning to dish out anything near to what Pleasanton has agreed to pay outside public relations contractors to spread messages about penalties and conservation.

The contract doesn't sit well with all the city's water users.

"I think it's stupid for the city to spend $200,000 to hire contractors to tell people what they should already know,"said Pleasanton resident Jerry Dean. "We're in a drought and we need to save."

City officials said it's crucial to keep the city from running out of water, and to help people avoid the steep penalties for failing to cut water use by at least 25 percent.

"I think people are getting it, but we haven't quite turned the corner on getting everyone on board," said Daniel Smith, Pleasanton's director of operational services. "When we get into July and August (heat), it's going to be a lot harder for people to save."


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In a unanimous vote, the council agreed to pay Carol H. Williams Advertising agency up to $200,000 in city water funds to develop and publicize drought education messages and advertising for radio, newspapers and other media.

"We may not spend all the $200,000," Smith said. 'We're only going to spend what we need."

Water managers in Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore say they share a common message to explain that the Tri-Valley faces more acute water shortages than most other Bay Area places because of its heavy reliance on state water allocations -- slashed 95 percent this year.

"We in the Tri-Valley are in same boat together. We need people to reduce outdoor water use," said Sue Stephenson, community affairs supervisor for Dublin San Ramon Services District, a supplier for Dublin and the Dougherty Valley in San Ramon.

Her agency is not spending money on an outside public relations contractor, but expects to spend some $90,000 on media advertising about conservation.

Livermore water officials figure to spend some $70,000 this year on media advertising, but only about $10,000 to $20,000 this year for a public relations contractor, said Dan McIntyre, the city's public works director.

Pleasanton has got more attention, criticism and questions in part because it took a different approach than other Tri-Valley suppliers: penalizing those who don't save enough.

While Livermore and the Dublin-San Ramon districts increased everyone's rates uniformly to encourage less use, Pleasanton decided to charge customers more only if they fail to cut use 25 percent.

But Pleasanton customers who fall short of the target face a double whammy; their per-gallon rate will rise and they also will pay penalties.

Nearly 3,000 Pleasanton residents have contacted the city about the penalties since their adoption in early May, and have kept city workers busy at a new drought hotline answering center.

The first bills with the penalties come out in early July, which customers can appeal to the city for relief from the charges -- including those who are upset because they cut back last year but still have to meet the 25 percent target.

"We would like it if no one has to pay penalties," Smith said. "We will work with people."

Pleasanton residents reduced their total water use 27 percent in May and are on target for a 35 percent cut so far in June, Smith said.

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.