Effect of lobbying firm hired by Macon questioned

Rick Hutto knows first-hand the benefits of having a lobbyist represent an organization in Washington, D.C.

After all, the Macon city councilman spent years in the nation’s capital working as a lobbyist.

Hutto, however, said he’s unsure of the benefits the city has received while employing the D.C.-based lobbying firm of Blank Rome Government Relations.

“I’m very much in favor of having a lobby firm in general,” Hutto said. “I know they can be really effective. But (the council) has only gotten one paper (from Blank Rome). You’d have to ask the mayor’s office about what they’ve done. I’m not really aware of it.”

The city pays the firm $10,000 a month to search for grants, secure appropriations and identify other opportunities to get Macon federal funding help. Except for one memo from the Blank Rome, several members of the council said they aren’t aware of what the firm is doing on the city’s behalf.

But Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said he thinks the city has gotten its money’s worth.

“I would say they’ve made significant impact with their efforts,” he said. “We’ve been on the front edge of several grant applications that they pointed out. They’ve done a great job working with our representatives and senators.”

Blank Rome was employed as a lobbyist for the city during Mayor Jack Ellis’ administration, and proved to be key in securing the grants that helped refurbish Terminal Station. Since the city signed a new contract with Blank Rome last October, officials have been hoping for a similar return.

Among Blank Rome’s accomplishments it listed in a memo sent to Reichert and the council last month, the firm reported it:

n Coordinated Macon officials and congressional staff in preparing requests to the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees for U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga., and Georgia Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, on behalf of the city. The firm organized several meetings for Reichert on a dozen requests.

n Identified grant opportunities with the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Blank Rome also researched grant opportunities such as the Sustainable Communities Planning Grant, the Small Community Air Service Development Program and Promise Neighborhood Grants, and outlined the federal DOT’s criteria for Tiger II grants. Those grants are still in the application process, officials said.

n Provided information on the successful New Markets Tax Credit program to the city and the Urban Development Authority, and worked with both entities to partner on a project to get New Markets Tax Credit funding.

Based on recommendations made by Blank Rome to the city, Marshall ended up requesting $750,000 for a truck route on Seventh Street; $70,000 for exhaust ventilation system improvements to the city’s maintenance shop facility; and $1.4 million to extend the Middle Georgia Regional Airport’s runway. Chambliss requested $800,000 on the city’s behalf to replace the city’s public safety and first responder communications system.

“A judgment call”

Marshall, a former Macon mayor, said the city had its own lobbying firm when he first took office in 1995, but he soon ended that contract. Now, he said it’s mostly his staff members who interact with the firm and said it’s a matter of judgment as to how effective the firm has been on the city’s behalf.

“It’s (Reichert) who does the talking,” Marshall said. “My guess is (Blank Rome) has helped guide him in his remarks. ... The city requests specific things, often with the guidance of a lobbying firm. ... What a lobbying firm can do is help the city identify opportunities that might be helpful to the different needs the city has and help the city make a presentation if it can.”

Marshall said that when he was mayor, he used information provided by the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Georgia Municipal Association to identify grants and other opportunities for the city.

“It’s a judgment call to hire an outsider with expertise,” he said. “There are a lot of variables to take into account.”

Among other Georgia cities of similar size to Macon, only Albany currently pays a Washington-based lobbying firm. Savannah, Columbus and Augusta don’t, though one Augusta official told The Telegraph, “I wish we did.”

Wes Smith, Albany’s assistant city manager, sang the praises of MWW Group, the firm Albany employs.

“They cull through grant opportunities and send them to us weekly,” said Smith, who added that the city pays the firm $100,000 per year. “We’ve liked this relationship. ... I’m convinced our (return on investment) will be significant. ... These guys are really good at it. We’ve gotten a lot of infrastructure money, a lot of police money. It’s got a lot of advantages, but you’ve got to work it.”

Macon City Councilwoman Elaine Lucas has been one of the vocal opponents of the city employing a lobbying firm. She said she thinks elected officials should be the ones lobbying on the city’s behalf.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten our money’s worth,” she said. “We need to call on our elected officials. (The firm) is costing us $10,000 a month, and it’s a waste of money. ... Their report says they basically set up interviews and (grant) requests. Our congressional representatives can do that.”

Given all of the responsibilities Marshall and his staff must deal with on a daily basis, he said it’s not always easy to pinpoint all the grants out there, especially since he represents other cities in Georgia’s 8th District.

“Certainly, that lobbying firm — since that’s all it does all the time — is going to see all of the opportunities,” Marshall said. “They’re more hands-on.”

But Marshall said because most of the cities and counties he represents can’t afford a lobbying firm, he thinks they shouldn’t be penalized.

“That’s what I try to do to help all of the cities in the district that can’t afford a lobbyist,” he said. “It shouldn’t handicap them from getting help from the federal government.”

Bibb County commissioners discussed hiring their own Washington-area lobbying firm Tuesday. Many city officials said they’re open to the idea of joining with the county to hire a lobbyist, since any grants earned would benefit both the city and county.

“That would certainly make sense,” Reichert said. “I would think that would be on some agenda. It makes sense to share the greater expense. If they’re interested, I’d love to talk to them. I think it’s obvious.”

Bibb County Commissioner Elmo Richardson said this month he was unaware of any talks with the city.

“It’s certainly something we could take a look at,” he said. “I’m keeping an open mind.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.