By Alan Burke
---- — SWAMPSCOTT — It’s long been the strategy for high-powered businesses and individuals — hire some sharp K Street lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to make sure there’s a slice of the federal pie pushed onto your plate.
And if it can work for them, why can’t it work for a city or town? That’s the philosophy anyway behind the effort of this town to hire a lobbyist who might earmark federal funds for Swampscott. Recently, the town’s agent posted a legal notice inviting applicants to come forward.
“What this is,” Town Administrator Thomas Younger said, “is finding an individual to assist us on issues in Washington.”
With help, he hopes, Swampscott will reap the benefits of more federal grants and programs.
The decision to seek a lobbyist was approved at May Town Meeting. It comes after a period where Swampscott has found itself increasingly pressed to maintain the standards of its schools and public facilities. Over the past decade, for example, the town has seen teacher layoffs and a long and difficult campaign before taxpayers could be persuaded to ante up and replace the ancient and inadequate police station.
Given the amounts that residents pay in local, state and federal taxes, it’s a maddening problem. And hiring a lobbyist to deal with it, Younger said, “is somewhat unique. ... This is somewhat outside the box.”
Swampscott is yet to receive the responses to its proposal. The contract would pay $10,000 for one year. The idea of hiring a lobbyist is something of an experiment, which will be reassessed after two years, Younger said.
Geoff Beckwith, director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, explains that he only knows of one local community that employs a lobbyist — Boston. His group and national organizations like the National League of Cities are expected to lobby by “tracking” programs in both Washington and on Beacon Hill, programs like Community Development Block Grants, which are geared for cities and towns.
It’s when municipalities are seeking money for a specific project that a lobbyist might be useful, Beckwith said. He declines to give an opinion on the worth in general of lobbying by small communities.
An article published more than a year ago by the Open Secrets blog, however, tells of the Alaskan village of Galena, with fewer than 500 people, obtaining federal grants totaling $1.5 million for infrastructure projects. The return on investment in lobbying — after hiring former associates of Sen. Ted Stevens at prices of up to $60,000 a year — was 25-1.
Swampscott Selectman Barry Greenfield is credited with promoting the idea of hiring a lobbyist originally, and he believes the fact that no municipality other than Boston has one is a plus. Firms will compete to do a good job for Swampscott, he said, in order to inspire others to hire them.
Expressing some frustration over the difficulty of getting new ideas adopted, Greenfield laments the fact that his recommendation to spend $60,000 a year on lobbying was rejected by the selectmen and Town Meeting. Even so, he said, “I speak to lobbyists all the time, and they all feel they can be successful for ($10,000).”
Richard Malagrifa, selectmen chairman, sees the plan as a way to get funds for developing and maintaining things like roads and the town’s waterfront. “If we’re going to get some seawall repairs, there’s probably an expert (lobbyist) that deals with that.”
The amount of money going to the federal government makes the lobby effort worthwhile, Malagrifa said. He sees an indication that there’s an imbalance, that localities, which provide most of people’s services, should be the ones getting the most money instead of the federal government.
More skeptical still is former Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti, who notes that his city has never hired a lobbyist. He wonders why any community would pay for such a service. “I was always under the impression they do have lobbyists — they call them congressmen.”
Groups like the MMA and League of Cities are likewise devoted to lobbying on behalf of communities, he said.
For that matter, Bonfanti wonders what impact Swampscott will have in Washington.
“What are you going to get for $10,000?” he asks. “To really have an impact, you need a big firm and you need to spend a lot of money.”
Finally, the former mayor wishes Swampscott the best. “If it works, hey, OK. ... Obviously, they’ve thought it out and feel it’s worthwhile.”