WEST VALLEY CITY When it comes to Washington politics, it pays to pay someone to look out for you on Capitol Hill.
That's West Valley City's experience, after more than a decade of contracting a D.C. firm to lobby for highly sought-after funds for the city. Paying close to $100,000 a year to keep the city's interests in front of lawmakers' eyes might seem like an extreme step, but since West Valley has successfully obtained some $10 million in federal funds for special projects over the past 10 years, city leaders say it's worth it.
"It gives you such an advantage over other local governments that aren't as large as ours or sophisticated enough to use (a lobby firm,)" said Joseph Moore, West Valley's Community and Economic Development director. "They are right in the heart of Washington. ... If you want to be aggressive about getting federal funding you somehow have to keep your hand in Washington keep your hand on the pulse of what's going on because billions of dollars can come through that process."
This year, West Valley has its eye on $5.7 million in federal funds for various projects. Officials will be counting on The Ferguson Group which represents more than 100 cities from Connecticut to California, but only West Valley City in Utah to help them get the money.
The city's first priority is to obtain $2.2 million in addition to $10.6 million being sought by Utah's Transit Authority to build an intermodal hub for West Valley City's soon-to-be TRAX line. Second priority is obtaining $1.5 million to build an urban park around the intermodal hub.
The city is also looking to gain $300,000 for an after-school science program, $1 million to buy equipment for a regional DNA lab, $500,000 to expand programs at the Utah Cultural Celebrations Center and $200,000 to buy new public safety equipment.
City leaders have identified those six items, in order of priority, that they'd like funding for, but that's no guarantee that the city will get exactly what it wants.
"Sometime we'll get number four on the list but not number one," said West Valley City deputy city manager Nicole Cottle. "It all depends where the federal government is appropriating federal funds. We give (The Ferguson Group) some idea of where we want them to focus our work, but politics always kicks in and, depending on the politics on each issue, determines whether we're successful."
Cities don't have to hire lobbyists to obtain federal funds, said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, but not doing so requires cities and counties to dedicate a significant effort to developing relationships with Washington officials.
"On first blush, it seems a little disturbing that these cities and counties can't get the things for their citizens without paying this money, but I think what cities and counties are dealing with at this point is, what is the most efficient and effective way to get your needs and desires across to the federal government?" Jowers said. "The fact is, that it oftentimes makes more economic sense to hire a lobbyist than to hire some staff member who has the ability to make the city's or the county's case."
Jowers suggests that cities that don't hire lobbyists should approach the governor to gain his support on a particular issue. Talking to state representatives can also be beneficial in advancing a city's cause, Jowers said."The mayor can make some great appearances and make a great case, but when you're dealing with legislators, it's a question of how do you follow up on a great meeting and continue to advance the ball when it gets stalled?" Jowers said. "State lobbyists can do that for you, or state senators can do that for you, but someone has to do it."