County will hire lobbyist to get bigger slice of pie
By DEBORAH O'NEIL, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- With the threat of deep cuts looming in the upcoming legislative session, Pinellas County government is hiring a lobbyist to represent county interests in Tallahassee.
The county has set aside $100,000 to hire a firm. The County Commission will make a selection Jan. 15, just a week before the new session begins.
County leaders hope the move will make Pinellas more competitive when it comes to garnering dollars and influencing legislation.
"As much as we hate to think about it, the lobbyists are running the government," Commissioner Calvin Harris said. "We need somebody who will speak in that inner circle."
The county staff is soliciting interest from firms until Jan. 8, and then a committee of top county leaders will evaluate and rank the firms. The commission will choose the lobbyist, and the staff will negotiate a contract.
The lobbying firm will represent the county along with Assistant County Administrator Elithia Stanfield, who normally makes the trek to Tallahassee on the county's behalf to track legislation.
But Stanfield is not a lobbyist.
"She doesn't have the influence," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "She's an information provider. She lets legislators know how a particular bill is going to impact the county. She can't go over there and get the money. It doesn't work that way."
County leaders said they hope to establish a long-term relationship with the lobbying firm they select. Harris said he would like to see the commission set short-term and long-term goals for the lobbyist to work on.
State Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor, said hiring a lobbyist is a great idea for Pinellas. South Florida communities, he said, have had lobbyists on board for years.
"That makes complete sense, especially as big as Pinellas is," Crow said.
Lobbyists, he said, can pursue an issue or funding exclusively to the benefit of the county. The appropriations process in Tallahassee, Crow said, is lobbyist-driven.
"When you have a private lobbyist, you can sometimes get things done you wouldn't otherwise get done," Crow said. "You've got somebody bird-dogging the process. I might be working on 20 issues. The lobbyist, they're going to make sure every day that thing is seen to."
A top priority for the county in the upcoming session will be preventing state government from passing off costs to the county, what they call "unfunded mandates." Also, Pinellas County wants to ensure the county is a terminus point for a new high speed rail system.
The county also is looking for money to help pay for improvements to Gulf Boulevard and U.S. 19. Latvala said she would like to see Pinellas win more dollars for mental health and indigent programs.
With the state facing tough economic times, the need for a lobbyist is even more pronounced, leaders said.
"It's extremely critical this year," Commissioner Karen Seel said. "Last time I looked, Pinellas County pays a pretty nice share toward the state budget. We need to make sure we're getting our fair share."
One windfall could pay back the cost of hiring the lobbyist, Crow said.
"Just think about U.S. 19: If you could have someone really bird-dog that and pull out an extra $10-million or $20-million, it would be money well spent," Crow said.
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