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Holladay Journal

City spends nearly $100K for lobbyist to help obtain federal funding

Jan 05, 2023 12:58PM ● By Zak Sonntag

One big ticket item leaders hope to pursue with the help of federal funds is the reconstruction of Highland Drive between Arbor Lane and Van Winkle Expressway. (File photo City Journals)

For the first time in almost a decade, the City of Holladay has hired a federal lobbyist.

The decision is meant to help the city grab a bigger share of the money made available in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a federal law that’s earmarked a staggering $1.2 trillion for infrastructure enhancements across the U.S.

The move mirrors a nationwide lobbying blitz by smaller municipal entities traditionally uninterested in pursuing federal influence, according to recent accounts by the Washington Post, which has raised the competition—and cost—for lobbyists.

But if all goes to plan, the money will be well spent because the upside is significant—an opportunity at what Holladay City Manager Gina Chamness described in November as “maybe the most federal money that’s ever been available for communities like ours.”

The city has contracted with Barker Leavitt, a firm with deep connections to Utah’s congressional delegation, and whose client list includes myriad public entities—Utah Transit Authority and Wasatch Front Regional Council—along with private companies in the healthcare and electronics industries, according to Open Secrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks money is U.S. politics. 

Coming in just shy of $100,000, the retainer marks the city’s largest ever lobbying outlay, a reminder that access comes at a cost, a reality to which the council is not naive.

“It kind of makes you squirm a little bit to think that you have to hire people to get access to funding. But the bottom line is that it ends up being money very well spent. Those lobbyists know where those pots of money are, what they’re specifically to be used for, and how to put your applications in,” said Mayor Robert Dahle in an interview, explaining that the city considered six firms and interviewed three before deciding on Barker Leavitt.

“Even though we went with the more expensive (lobbying firm), we think it’s going to be the best value long-term for the residents of Holladay. It’s more up front, but when you're talking about hundreds of thousands in potential awards, that extra money is not as significant as it might be in a regular budgeting process,” Dahle said.

The apparent perquisite for a lobbyist, albeit, runs counter to the Biden Administration’s stated goal of making the funding accessible to communities without recourse third parties; the White House published a 365-page guidebook along with the administrative website to make the process easy for municipalities to navigate.

“This guidebook is another step in our effort to be as transparent as possible, so you know what to apply for, who to contact, and how to get ready to rebuild,” explained Mitch Landrieu, the administration’s Implementation Coordinator, in the introduction to the Building a Better America guidebook.

Even still, cities like Holladay, which has a long record of wrangling free money from other pots of funding, are willing to pay top dollar for a specialized firm for a better shot at federal earmarks. 

The new approach underscores that the city is getting serious about repairing its “old bones,” a reference to its outdated infrastructure and over $75 million in unfunded liabilities as shown in the Holladay@20 report

One big ticket item leaders hope to pursue with the help of federal funds is the reconstruction of Highland Drive between Arbor Lane and Van Winkle Expressway, an area troubled by drainage and utility issues, and where community members have pushed for better multimodal transportation.

According to the American Association of Civil Engineers (ASCE), roads like Highland Drive play a key role in economic vitality, as an ASCE report from 2021 argues that underfunded infrastructure chips away at the country’s GDP through lost productivity. 

Since the passage of the mixed-used Holladay Crossroads Zone, a gateway district and key commercial contributor on the city’s southside, the need for an efficient multi-modal Highland Drive corridor will increase, city leaders say.

Also on the shortlist of funding priorities is implementation of the Wasatch Boulevard Master Plan. In addition to making the corridor more pedestrian friendly with enhanced accommodations for cyclists, the plan aims to improve traffic safety conditions on the Boulevard that saw 271 crashes in the period between 2016 and 2021, according to collision data cited in the plan.

Other desired projects relate to storm water systems, including an imminent conveyance system repair in District 3’s Meadow Moore area, which City Engineer Jared Bunch says must be attended to in order to prevent the potential for property damage. 

“We have a lot of old metal pipes that are approaching or even exceeding their lifespans. They are corroding or deteriorating and they need to be rehabilitated or replaced,” Bunch said. “Storm drain systems are needed to protect properties from storm water.”

In this way the city reflects troubles faced by the state as a whole, with the ASCE giving Utah’s storm water systems a middling “C+” grade in their 2020 infrastructure report card

Holladay City has seen impressive results from its state-level lobbying efforts, according to the mayor, which makes the council confident in its decision to retain Barker Leavitt. Local lobbying firm Capstone Strategies, for instance, was instrumental in the $4 million award to the city for the recent reconstruction of 3900 South from Olympus High to I-215.

“Our experience with our lobbyists has been terrific and they turn every penny we pay them,” Dahle said.

Now the city is stepping up its lobbying game and chasing even bigger sums.

Councilmember Paul Fotheringham during a November meeting summarized the council’s thinking: “To maximize being able to get our share (of federal funds), it takes that type of expertise, and you can’t get it unless you spend a little. You got to spend it to get it.”