Air district spending on ads to fight smog argued

FRESNO -- The valley's smog fight is going public with a bombardment of messages on billboards, at churches, in newspapers, on television -- at a price of more than $850,000 in public money this year.

The advertising is successful and necessary, say officials at the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

In winter, the messages tell people to check the district's Web site or call a toll-free number to find out if burning wood is allowed. In summer, residents are urged to drive less, car pool and buy electric lawn equipment.

But one prominent critic of the ads, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, questions the wisdom of spending money on a publicity blitz.

"I don't understand using these precious dollars that could go to grants for cleaning the air instead going to promote current supervisors on the air board that have done nothing but vote against the many clean-air initiatives that I and other clean-air advocates have proposed," Florez said in an e-mail.

But air officials credit publicity for reducing unhealthy air days by 50 percent over the winter, because people heard the message about observing stricter use of fireplaces. About half of the $850,000 was spent last winter.

"Fresno County had zero unhealthy days for the first time ever. Public outreach is the only way to get the word out there," said the air district's executive director Seyed Sadredin.

Officials don't get a lot of arguments from most environmentalists. Kern County resident Tom Franz of the valley-based Association of Irritated Residents has long criticized the district as not aggressive enough, but not on the issue of investing money to inform the public.

"If it's spent wisely, it is money well-spent," he said. "You've got to change people's minds in the valley."

'Healthy Air Living'

Officials plan to spend $377,400 this summer on the "Healthy Air Living" campaign, aimed at getting people to drive less and think more about air quality.

Some $56,000 is budgeted to help people buy cleaner wood-burning stoves and electric lawn mowers, and fund the district's annual air quality symposium, which promotes clean-air practices for businesses and residents.

Most of the advertising and marketing funding is from vehicle registration fees.

The district's investment is modest, says one expert. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District spends $4 million annually on advertising, marketing and public outreach. The Bay Area had 12 federal ozone violations last year. The valley had 127.

"How do you get people to car pool?" asked Lisa Fasano, Bay Area district communications director. "It's the hardest thing we do. I'd say the valley air district's $850,000 is a drop in the bucket."

The valley air district's advertising and marketing amounts to less than 30 cents per person. Officials estimate it helped trim up to 16 tons of wood-burning soot daily in winter.

By comparison, some air district rules require multimillion-dollar investments in technologies that sometimes yield less than a ton per day of pollution reduction.

District officials say they will use advertising to tell businesses they will be required to reduce worker commutes to fight valley ozone.

Summits in Fresno, Bakersfield and Modesto in early June will showcase options, such as telecommuting, flexible work schedules and car pooling.