The Pasco County Commission has directed County Administrator Dan Biles to take steps necessary to prepare to hire two lobbyists to represent the county’s interests.
One lobbyist would pursue federal dollars, while the other would focus on funding opportunities at the state level.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey raised the issue at the board’s Sept. 21 meeting.
She had mentioned the need for it in the past and brought it back again.
“Frankly, I think we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not having an outside lobbyist,” Starkey said. “I’ve talked to commissioners in other counties and we might be the only county this size, I think we would be the only county this size, that doesn’t have at least one outside lobbyist. The other ones have multiple.”
She said it’s especially important “at a time when money is going to be even tighter in Tallahassee,” and added, “we need to be looking out for the best interest of our citizens.”
Hiring a lobbyist, she said, “is going to bring back dividends to the county.”
She thinks the county can do better than it did last year, in terms of obtaining state funding for local projects.
“I think Ralph (Lair, the county’s lobbyist) does a great job, but there is a difference between an internal lobbyist and an external lobbyist, and we are better served, if we have both,” Starkey said.
Commissioner Jack Mariano agreed. He thinks the county is in a good position to attract funding for projects in the coming year, but said the county needs to have a strong advocate in Tallahassee.
He recommended bringing Shawn Foster, from Sunrise Consulting Group, back to represent the county.
“I think we should bring him back on. If he only gets one thing for us, we’re way ahead of the game,” Mariano said.
It’s important to have someone working on the county’s behalf up in Tallahassee.
“You’ve got to be up there. You’ve got to be in their face. You’ve got to be pushing to get these things through,” Mariano said.
Commissioner Mike Wells agreed. “The school board has their internal person and their external person. They work great together as a team. And, in the past, Shawn (Foster) has worked great for us as a team.”
Starkey also noted that both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties received “$10s of millions” from Washington D.C., this year.
Starkey made a motion to hire a lobbyist.
Wells asked if the motion includes hiring a federal lobbyist, as well as a state lobbyist.
Starkey replied: “I would love that. We are really missing out. We never would have got that Ridge Road project without that (lobbyist) help. I agree that we should have a federal lobbyist help us with this whole coastal effort.”
But, Commission Chairman Mike Moore asked: “On the federal side, what was our return on investment. How many bills were passed on our behalf? How much funding did we receive from the group we had previously hired on, as federal lobbyists?”
Starkey countered: “We have to be smart about what we ask for, and we haven’t used our lobbyists right. ‘Cuz we haven’t had a project, besides our Ridge Road one, that we went up there and asked them for. Although I did ask for help in changing some of the labor laws, and we did get that.
“Even Martin County, the little Martin County over there, they have two lobbying firms in Washington. They bring back millions and millions of dollars. We have to be more savvy about what we’re asking for. I think there’s transportation money. I think there’s possibly this dredge money. We should look at what other counties have done and mimic that,” Starkey said.
“We have to have a plan. We have to have an ask and then we have to go work it. And, we can’t expect it in a year or two, but you have to build those relationships,” Starkey added.
Wells asked if Starkey wanted to use a solicitation procedure to fill the positions.
County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said that the county didn’t have the option to bypass that process.
Mariano asked if the board could extend Foster’s former contract.
“You can’t just go with Mr. Foster. It has to go out for bid,” Steinsnyder said, adding that Foster’s contract had long since expired and could not be resuscitated.
Commissioner Ron Oakley asked where the funding would come from, for the two positions.
County Administrator Dan Biles said: “I don’t know. This discussion is new to me.
“There’s not funding for either one in the budget. If the board wants to do that, we obviously will amend the budget to add money into the budget to do that, and then we will do the solicitation process for both contracts,” Biles said.
Moore said he thinks there is money available for the positions this year from funding that was returned to the county, that would cover the positions for this year — without dipping into reserves. But that would be for this year only.