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Recession-battered cities lobbying Washington for aid

WASHINGTON – They’re furloughing many city workers for eight days this summer. They’ve cut staffing by about 5 percent. Now officials in Tracy, Calif., are trying another way to help make ends meet in these tough economic times: They’ve hired a Washington lobbyist.

It’s an idea that seems to be spreading. Senate lobbying records show that dozens of cities and counties signed up with lobbying firms in the three months of this year. Their goal is to get a greater share of the money flowing out of Washington, from a record federal budget to the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

Some of the communities hiring lobbyists have done so before and are simply shuffling their lineup or adding to it. But others are getting into the lobbying game for the first time.

“This is a new venture for the city. This is a relatively conservative community and has a high degree of self-reliance, but we also understand there’s also a great opportunity for all communities, Tracy included” said Leon Churchill, city manager for the suburban community about 60 miles east of San Francisco. “The opportunity was too immense to bypass.”

The city paid $10,000 to Patricia Jordan and Associates in the first quarter. Disclosure reports filed with the Senate show the firm lobbied lawmakers and the Federal Highway Administration on a highway spending bill. It also lobbied the Federal Emergency Management Agency for “emergency management” money. The stimulus bill provided the agency with hundreds of millions of dollars for grants to firefighters and improved transit and rail security.

Baytown, Texas, also hired a lobbying firm. While there was some concern from city council members that such action encouraged more federal spending, City Manager Garry Brumback argued that the money was going to get spent regardless and that Baytown should get its share.

“The idea that they’re going to lower your taxes if we don’t accept any money is a little bit ridiculous,” Brumback said.

The city will spend $40,000 for federal lobbying and $25,000 for lobbying at the state level. Expectations for the return on that investment are high.

“If you’re not getting at least 10-to-1, you’ve hired a bad lobbyist,” he said.

Lobbyists filed new registrations this quarter on behalf of major metropolitan areas such as Cook County, Ill., St. Louis and Seattle. But they also went to bat for scores of small towns as well. For instance, the village of Deer Park, Ill., with a population of 3,200 and a budget of about $3.5 million, hired a lobbying firm to help it get money for road and drainage projects.

“We were looking for a way to make up some of the shortfalls we see for the next couple of years until we get out of this recession,” said Scott Gifford, president of the village’s board of trustees.

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