City Finance Director reflects on year with lobbying firmWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A year has passed since the city hired a lobbying firm to represent Toledo’s interests in Columbus and the city finance director says the anniversary marks a success.
Sean Dunn & Associates has enabled Toledo to balance its budget and keep a close eye on discussions that fill the house and senate floors, said Patrick McLean, city finance director.
The three lobbyists, Sean Dunn, Lisa Dodge and Christie Angel, are Columbus-based and represent nearly 25 associations, health care systems and companies. Toledo is the group’s only municipal client.
City council approved the hire for $60,000 a year on April 5, 2011.
“When cities are already struggling and the state has been struggling too trying to balance its budget, there is no more important time to have a lobbying presence in Columbus than right now,” McLean said.
McLean referenced the $48 million deficit that faced Mayor Mike Bell’s administration when he took office, combined with the dwindling amount of money that ekes out of the state each year. Toledo received $25 million from the state in 2007 but by 2013, the city will get about $8 million.
One of the ways that the city has handled the predicament is to go after delinquent taxes. In 2010, the extra effort pulled in $4.1 million in delinquent taxes, followed by $4.5 million in 2011.
Talks in Columbus are threatening to hinder the city’s ability to continue to do so, McLean said. Proposals have began floating around that would centralize tax collection, authorizing the state to collect on behalf of cities. McLean said he doubts that a centralized force collecting taxes from numerous other entities would be able to act as aggressively as the city has.
That’s where Sean Dunn & Associates come in. The lobbyists call McLean at the first sound of talks like these, McLean said. Then, they can take measure to try to stop proposals from further motion.
“Sometimes success is seen in what does not happen rather than what does not happen,” he said.
He measures a concrete example of success by parking garages. The city needed to sell the garages to balance its budget but wording in a statute forbade the municipality from transferring the property. Basically, the city owned the meters but it did not own the streets where the meters sat. Up to the deadline on the state floors, Sean Dunn & Associates were able to change the law and the city then sold the garages to the Lucas County Port Authority.
The sale brought in $13 million. About $5 million went to resolve debt and about $7.8 fed the general fund. The deal enabled the city to balance its budget, McLean said.
Councilman Tom Waniewski, who opposed hiring the lobbying firm last year, said he would expect the firm do perform its job well but that doesn’t change his original contention.
“We elect state representatives; aren’t they supposed to be lobbying on our behalf down there?”
He also took issue with difficulty in reaching the lobbying firm as well as acquiring basic information about what the group has accomplished. He said he asked for an update from the city in January and hadn’t received anything until just recently. He said he called Sean Dunn & Associates last week and is still waiting for a return call.
McLean said he talks to the lobbyists often — depending on the issue at hand he might converse with them several times a week.
Dunn said legislators are the strongest lobbyists because they have the votes but that these elected officials and their small staffs are inundated with a gamut of issues. Private lobbying firms can narrow their focus to a particular bill or interest, he said.
“Their whole world is a constant kind of drinking from a fire hose so they’re very willing to help the city and their region but the role we often fill is helping the city as our client efficiently deal with them,” Dunn said.
McLean added that representatives and state senators also do not cover just the city; the city might be only a portion of their constituency.
“It would be unfair of us to ask Teresa Fedor, (D-47) to stop representing everyone else and just represent us,” he said. “She couldn’t do it and quite frankly she shouldn’t do it.”
The city has a 3-year contract with Sean Dunn & Associates but the deal will be up for renewal in a couple of months. McLean seeks to renew the contract. Dunn, Dodge and Angel said they’re eyeing a fund for local governments called the Local Government Innovation Fund. The firm aims to help the city apply for a loan or a grant that encourages local governments to collaborate with each other. Whatever projects they might seek are still in the draft stages, the firm said.