Local governments pay millions to lobbyists; Costello earns $7K monthly

News-DemocratAugust 24, 2013 

Former U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Belleville) in a 2012 file photo.

ZIA NIZAMI/BND

Local units of government in recent years have spent more than $2.7 million on lobbyists, including $7,000 a month now being paid to former Congressman Jerry Costello by the Madison County Transit District.

Costello, a Belleville Democrat, said public transportation is "something that I've always worked for," and noted some of his accomplishments in that area, such as being instrumental in bringing light-rail to the region. He said that's one reason he wants to work for MCT.

Most people have heard of lobbying conducted by trade associations, business groups, labor unions, interest groups, corporations and the like. They're private entities that want their voices heard by lawmakers.

But taxpayers might be surprised to know that some of the dollars they give to local government bodies -- in the form of property taxes, sales taxes, fees and fines -- end up going to lobbyists. The lobbyists are paid to look out for the local government body's interests on the state or federal level.

Figures obtained by the News-Democrat through the Freedom of Information Act show units of local government in the metro-east have spent at least $2.7 million on lobbyists since 2002.

The heads of those bodies say the lobbyists provide valuable services: helping obtain grants, keeping abreast of proposed legislation, pushing for or against proposed laws and generally helping to navigate the bureaucracies of the state and federal governments.

But a critic questions the need for one level of government to use tax dollars to lobby another level of government.

The biggest spender on lobbying is Madison County Transit, which has paid $816,000 to lobbyists since 2008. State records show that Madison County Transit also had lobbyists in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, but the transit agency said its lobbyist expenditure records for those years are in a computer format that is no longer accessible.

Jerry Kane, the director of Madison County Transit, said lobbyists help the agency win state and federal grants.

"Keep in mind that there are many, many more applications for the funding than there is money to meet the needs of the applicants," Kane said. "Today, in hectic times with the fiscal situation in the state of Illinois and the federal government, there's much more competition for limited funds. It does help units of local government -- it gives an edge to the ones who have an effective lobbyist."

For example, Kane said MCT, which is not a part of county government, received one grant for $5 million that helped replace the district's entire bus fleet during the past two years. Another $13.8 million in federal money is being received for a high-speed rail station in Alton, he said.

Madison County Transit's lobbyists have been William O. Lipinski, Steve Davis Consulting and Government Consulting Solutions Inc. In April, the transit district signed a $7,000-a-month lobbying contract with The Jerry Costello Group after ending its contract with Government Consulting Solutions.

Davis is a Democrat and former state representative.

Costello recently chose to end a long career in Congress. His tenure included service on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Kane said he heard through word of mouth about Costello starting a lobbying firm.

"He's one of the most effective people I've ever met. We are pleased and fortunate to have him represent us," Kane said. "I'd say he's worth every penny."

COSTELLO: 'I BRING 25 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE'

Costello said he views his firm's work as providing overall consulting services, with lobbying being one facet of the service.

"I think what I bring is 25 years of experience in the legislative process, understanding how the process works, and having developed relationships both with elected officials and government officials, both at the state and federal level," he said.

Costello praised the Madison County Transit District.

"They're a first-class operation. They're run very well, and it's something that I've worked in for many years," he said.

Costello said he's received several offers for lobbying and consulting work, but is being selective about clients.

According to state lobbying records, Costello's new firm so far has one other client for state-level lobbying: Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation, which has headquarters in Sauget. Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation, which operates health centers across the region and serves mostly low-income residents, is not a government agency and therefore is not required to disclose its lobbying expenditures.

Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation is a Federally Qualified Health Center, meaning it receives various types of federal money.

According to federal records, Costello's firm so far has two clients for federal-level lobbying: aviation giant Boeing Co., which has paid $30,000 for services, and Veolia Environmental Services, a waste-management company that paid $20,000 for services.

ST. CLAIR TRANSIT: 'WE GET GOOD VALUE'

After Madison County Transit, the next-biggest lobbying spender among metro-east government bodies is St. Clair County Transit, which has paid $460,000 to lobbyists since 2008.

Bill Grogan, director of the St. Clair County Transit District, said employing a lobbyist is a way to have "someone who knows the situation" in Springfield or Washington who can "help us get our message through" to policy-makers.

"For example, in Illinois, we receive substantial operating assistance from the state of Illinois, so we're always interested in anything that's going to adversely affect that situation, or that we might deem to be unfair or might be detrimental to our public transportation system versus others," Grogan said.

He added: "There have been times in the past when things have been proposed in other parts of the state that either were helpful to us and we supported, or they were detrimental to us and we opposed them. Frankly, in many of those cases, we might not know about them if we didn't have somebody there looking at them every day."

St. Clair County Transit's lobbyists have been Lipinski, Government Consulting Solutions and Sorling Northrup.

Grogan said he can see how critics might question why government needs to hire people to lobby another layer of government.

"I understand how folks who don't work in this environment might say, 'Well, what do they have to show for that?' The problem is, how do you prove a negative? We believe we get good value for the money spent on this effort," Grogan said.

CRITIC: 'WHAT'S THE POINT?'

The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a government watchdog group, conducted a study in 2010 that found 140 units of local-type government throughout the state -- such as park districts, municipalities, transit districts and colleges -- were spending about $7.4 million that year on lobbyists.

David Morrison, the director of the group, said he went into the study thinking the lobbyists were a waste of money, because state senators and representatives would be looking out for the interests of their districts.

However, Morrison said he now can envision situations where having a lobbyist might make sense for a local unit of government. For example, an area might be represented by Republican state lawmakers, but the state legislature is controlled by Democrats. Or a local government agency could be situated in the districts of multiple state lawmakers.

But those arguments might not be fitting for the metro-east, which Morrison described as mostly "one big, happy family" of Democrats.

Morrison doesn't buy the argument that a lobbyist is needed to help get grants or to navigate the Springfield bureaucracy. He said grants should be awarded based on merit, and if lobbyists can learn how to navigate the state bureaucracy, so can the leaders of local government.

"Springfield is a pretty unique culture, and I can see wanting a tour guide or somebody to hold your hand as you get to know the place, but whether that's an ongoing need, I don't know," Morrison said. "Public officials will need to develop their own relationships instead of relying on somebody else."

Morrison said some units of local government might do better to invest in police officers and classrooms and other vital services, rather than lobbyists.

"Budgets are tight across the board, and we have seen some abuses in this area," he said. "I think it's entirely reasonable to press this issue and ask, 'What is the point of having this contract?'"

FLOOD DISTRICT: WE EVEN HAD TO SUE

The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council -- formed just four years ago for the purpose of making improvements to the region's Mississippi River levees -- has already spent $151,500 on lobbyists. The flood district is paid for by a quarter-cent sales tax in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.

The flood district's director, Les Sterman, said the district has had to fight higher levels of government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"You may recall that we had to sue FEMA a couple of years ago to protect our residents from being unfairly required to buy flood insurance. Even more strangely, we need to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get information out of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," Sterman said.

"Something is indeed out of whack in how the various levels of government deal with each other, but until Congress and the state legislature fix that, we have little choice but to engage in the legislative process to protect ourselves and further our goals."

Mike Buehlhorn, director of the Metro East Park and Recreation District, said having a lobbyist helps put his agency in a better position to win state grants for projects such as bike trails. As an example, he said the state Department of Natural Resources has about $1 million available this year for bike trail grants.

"That might cover five or six good starts on trails. But do you think that's all the applicants there are in the entire state?" Buehlhorn said. "If the money doesn't come to St. Clair or Madison County, it goes to somewhere else in the state."

The park district is responsible for developing trails in the two counties, and is paid for by local sales taxes.

Buehlhorn said state lawmakers are always responsive when he calls them.

"I can call them and I can talk to them. But that doesn't mean they're going to remember, with everybody else who's calling them," he said.

Buehlhorn said he perhaps wouldn't need a lobbyist if other grant-seekers didn't have lobbyists.

"All we do is battle against one another for the same money," he said. "I won't say anything bad about Northern Illinois, but they always seem to get the lion's share of everything, and I'd like to keep some of that money in Southern Illinois."

The park district's lobbyist is Governmental Consulting Solutions, which the district has paid $169,000 since 2006.

CITIES: WE NEED DEVELOPMENT, GRANTS

The village of Swansea has paid Governmental Consulting Solutions $231,000 since 2002 for lobbying services.

Swansea Village President Ken Mueller said he views the lobbyist as more of an economic developer.

"I'm sitting here trying to get some of the economic development that's going on all around us, and I need all the help I can get. We don't have any paid economic development people," Mueller said, adding that the lobbyist can "look out for you and try to steer people your way."

Mueller also said the lobbyist is helping to secure a grant for roadwork in Swansea.

"It's my understanding that we're going to get a $250,000 grant from the state to help with engineering on Smelting Works Road," he said.

Mueller said state lawmakers listen when he calls them or visits with them.

"But I need economic development," he said. "I can tell you that the lobbyist already has steered some people to me, to talk to me about a project, and I'm hoping that project gets off the ground. If it does, it's going to be great, and it doesn't involve any tax money. These people know people."

Mueller has only been mayor since May, and said he'll review the lobbyist's work to make sure it's worthwhile, but so far Mueller sees the arrangement as beneficial for the village.

Mueller said several municipalities employ Governmental Consulting Solutions.

O'Fallon paid that firm $313,000 since 2003 for lobbying services. City Administrator Walter Denton said the firm mostly helps obtain grants.

Denton said the lobbyist's successes for O'Fallon include three state grants: $750,000 to buy land for the Family Sports Park, $400,000 for development of the park and $200,000 for the Rock Springs trail and parking lot.

Most cities and villages in the metro-east, including Belleville, don't have any lobbyists registered with the state.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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