Wednesday, October 3, 2007

County considers hiring D.C. lobbyist

Move could help secure federal funding for public projects

Express Staff Writer

Would hiring a professional congressional lobbyist be a good way for Blaine County to secure federal funding for local infrastructure improvement projects and other public needs?

The Blaine County Commission began batting this question around early Tuesday morning during their regularly scheduled weekly meeting in Hailey. Leading the discussion was Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael, who has worked as a professional lobbyist in Washington D.C. in the past.

Speaking to fellow Commissioners Tom Bowman and Larry Schoen, Michael said she recently sat down with Idaho lobbyist Ken Lee to discuss ways he might be able to help the county secure federal funding in the form of grants and other appropriations.

"He works for local governments," Michael said. "He lobbies appropriations committees."

She said Lee charges a $1,500 a month retainer fee for local governments he's working with to secure funding for critical public projects.

Michael said when Lee is successful securing funding for a particular local government he charges a fee that's based on a sliding scale percentage of the granted funding amount. She said that for funding up to $1 million, Lee charges a 6-percent fee. From $1-3 million he charges a smaller 5 percent fee, she said. On grants of $25 million or more he charges a 1-percent fee.

However, the payment Lee receives cannot come out of the federal funds themselves, but rather from county coffers, Michael said.

She said that while no decision has been made to hire Lee, the two of them did discuss a possible start date of Jan. 1, 2008. She said that would coincide nicely with Congress' budgeting calendar.

For her part, Michael expressed interest in the idea of hiring Lee to help the county secure federal funds.

"He impressed me a great deal," she said.

Asked by the other commissioners if any other resort counties—especially those in Colorado—have hired their own lobbyists, Michael said not many have.

"I think we would be one of the earliest," she said. "It would provide benefits."

Michael's counterparts on the commission, especially Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen, expressed cautious interest in the idea.

"I have such mixed feelings on this sort of thing," Schoen said.

He said if he was to feel comfortable with proceeding along that path, the county would need to identify what needs exist that could benefit from federal funding.

"Maybe now is not the right time to be pursuing this," Schoen said.

Michael and Bowman both noted needs they said could benefit from federal funding. These included a comprehensive study of the health of the Big Wood River in concert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, historical preservation funds for restoring portions of the Old Blaine County Courthouse and turning First Avenue near Blaine County offices in Hailey into a public pavilion.

Saying that, like Schoen, she too has concerns about how federal funding is allocated, Michael said she still thinks it's worthwhile to look into how such funding could benefit Blaine County.

"I hate pork, but Congress isn't giving it up," she said.

The County Commission decided to delay making any decision on the matter until a public meeting sometime in the near future. The commission will discuss what funding needs may exist at the meeting

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