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Article updated: 7/30/2012 7:35 AM

Treasurer's 'new' I-Cash program carries big pricetag

Treasurer's effort to re-brand Cash Dash costs nearly $2 million

By Kerry Lester

State Treasurer Dan Rutherford's office is paying nearly $2 million to a Chicago consulting firm to re-brand and market a program the Pontiac Republican said just months ago was exceeding expectations.

The state will pay Henson Consulting a total of $1.98 million over three years to "re-brand and market the Cash Dash program in the state treasurer's unclaimed property division," per the state contract.

The new I-Cash was introduced this month to replace Cash Dash, which last year returned $101 million in previously unclaimed cash to owners or heirs -- up 23 percent from the year before.

The treasurer's office calls the move a smart business decision that will ultimately result in returning more money to the hands of Illinois residents.

Rutherford's office says the money used to pay for the new marketing program comes from the pot of unclaimed property owed to Illinoisans, not the state's general checkbook used to pay bills.

But in a time when the state's budget deficit is bulging, a political analyst questions whom the program benefits most: the state or the politically ambitious state treasurer who is rumored to be strongly mulling a 2014 bid for governor.

"If you're re-branding something that is working well, then you're in a situation where the political benefit outweighs the public policy benefit," said Kent Redfield, political science professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. "They don't need to be incompatible ... but spending money on something that's functioning well, it doesn't seem (prudent)."

This fiscal year, the state paid $986,000 to the firm, according to the contract, which the Daily Herald obtained through the state comptroller's office.

Another $500,000 will be paid annually in 2013 and 2014.

Of this year's funds for the program, $185,000 is being spent on a "relaunch" -- which includes work on consumer testimonials, creating a promotional video and media outreach across the state. Another $50,000 will be spent on developing and designing a series of advertisements on print, television, radio and billboards. And $650,000 will be spent on ad buys.

Earlier this month, Rutherford's office announced the unclaimed property program recently added 780,000 names from records prior to 1992.

Spokeswoman Melissa Hahn said the timing of the program changes "was simply because we noticed during the (treasurer's) first year that the efforts to reach out to these unclaimed property owners was greatly enhanced. And that effort has absolutely been successful."

Rutherford, Hahn said, "wanted to do more" so the office "competitively bid for a company that could reach out to better communicate to the public to bring more people in."

The state's backlog of unpaid bills has hovered around $9 billion recently, and lawmakers continue to debate how to handle Illinois' $83 billion in pension debt.

By law, unpaid wages, refunds, inactive bank accounts, money orders, items in abandoned safe deposit boxes and other assets must be turned over to the state. Any surplus generated by unclaimed property goes into the state pension fund, Hahn said.

Cash Dash has been around for more than a decade, with Rutherford's predecessors working to streamline the program and make improvements. Chicago Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, treasurer from 2007 to 2011, began selling unclaimed property on eBay.

Since becoming treasurer in 2011, Rutherford has traveled around the state on a frequent basis to promote the program. "We're like the lottery, only with better odds," he quipped at a Carpentersville village hall event last fall.

This year, claims are even higher than at the same point in 2011.

On Friday, the treasurer's office touted the success of the marketing campaign in a news release.

"I decided the best way to use our non-taxpayer funded marketing budget was this statewide media campaign paired with an easy to use, bold new website," Rutherford said in the statement.

Rutherford's office said the new program is "on pace" to return more cash and assets to the public than in any other year of the state's efforts."

In three weeks, he said, visits to the state's unclaimed property website, icash.illinois.gov, have gone up by nearly 200 percent.

Yet, Redfield points out, by traveling to promote the program, Rutherford's profile also gets a boost.

"Constitutional officers do have ambitions, and are sometimes looking for ways to get a political boost out of the activities that build their offices," he said. "That's the public criticism where you get situations where you look like political ambition is driving policy, not the other way around."

This is not the first time Rutherford's office has faced criticism for work that could be construed as tied to political ambitions.

Last fall the Daily Herald investigated Rutherford's decision to send out a mailing about the state's debt problems to hundreds of people, a majority of whom were campaign donors.

Rutherford said the mailing was sent to those who expressed interest in the state's financial situation and called it a coincidence that donors were largely recipients.

He has pointed out that his picture was not included in that mailing and said it was not any kind of self-promotion piece. Hahn, too, pointed out that the I-Cash billboards and ads will not feature Rutherford's name or picture.

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