S. Florida governments hiring costly lobbyists to thwart property tax cuts

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Jason Garcia and Mark Hollis
Published May 21, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- Local governments across Florida are spending wads of taxpayer money -- possibly millions -- lobbying the Legislature as they battle members' efforts to slash property taxes.

A review of state records shows that during the first three months of this year, cities, counties and school boards spent at least $1.7 million, and perhaps as much as $4.3 million, retaining lobbyists to influence the Legislature.

Local governments in Broward and Palm Beach counties alone spent between $470,000 and $1.2 million during the period. And those sums were just for outside lobbyists, not for legislative directors or others who are employed directly by local governments.

City governments throughout South Florida were among those pouring money into the lawmaking process, with between $190,000 and $610,000 spent by cities in Broward; and from $100,000 to $230,000 spent by Palm Beach County municipalities.

Other South Florida governments also were among the biggest spenders. For instance, Miami spent as much as $168,000 on more than a dozen lobbyists, while Miami-Dade County spent as much as $122,000.

The records were made available under a year-old state law requiring Tallahassee's more than 2,000 lobbyists to disclose details about their work. They must identify their clients and how much they paid, although the fees are reported in ranges rather than exact figures.

For instance, the Broward County government reported spending between $60,000 and $130,000 in January, February and March.

The local governments have fielded an elite roster of hired guns, including former lawmakers, governor's aides and other insiders, many of whom were intimately involved in the property tax fight that consumed the Legislature this spring. Legislators failed to agree on much of anything and will return to try again June 12.

Critics call the lobbying a casebook example of overspending by cities and counties that must be pruned.

"The fact is that all of these cities and counties -- for the most part -- have bloated budgets, and they've been spending taxpayer money over the last five years like drunken sailors," said Jose Cancela, of Miami, co-chairman of Floridians for Property Tax Reform.

In an ordinary year, Palm Beach County spends $385,000 on lobbyists with eight firms, according to Todd Bonlarron, the county's legislative affairs director, whose $110,000 annual salary and business expenses aren't included. The new reports say the county spent between $50,000 and $120,000 on outside lobbyists in the first quarter of 2007.

Bonlarron and other local government officials say lobbying is a necessary expense, and not just to protect property tax revenue. Lobbyists monitor the progress of thousands of bills, many of which could affect local governments significantly.

Also, lobbyists help cities and counties compete for millions of dollars in state grants for everything from sewer lines to road construction.

This year, "a record number of funds came back to Palm Beach County," Bonlarron said. He said there is a correlation between what is spent on lobbying "and what local residents derive from the legislative process."

The review of lobbying expenses focused on cities, counties and school boards, as well as countywide agencies like sheriff's and court clerk's offices. It did not include other local bodies, such as hospital districts or airport authorities, or professional groups such as the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities.

For critics of local government spending, the lobbying expenses offer easy fodder.

"I think it certainly should be on the list on where they cut back," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. Still, Bogdanoff acknowledged she and other legislators benefit from local government lobbyists. "The most valuable role that these lobbyists play is communications," she said. "They tell [local officials] what's really happening in Tallahassee."

Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist for more than 30 local governments in South Florida, including those of Miramar, Cooper City, Tamarac, Lauderdale Lakes and Royal Palm Beach, said his clients get more than their money's worth.

"Hiring me is a rationale and responsible decision," he said, "and virtually in every instance I have always produced significant and substantial returns for the taxpayers."

Local governments "are entitled to the same quality of representation as private companies," Book said. Otherwise, he said, local issues and spending priorities will "get lost in the legislative process."