TALLAHASSEE — When Pinellas County's tiny Lealman Fire District needed help navigating the state Capitol this year, it used its limited public funds to hire a lobbyist.
The cost: between $10,000 and $30,000, according to records.
But the gamble worked. The fire district's legislation — which continues to protect Lealman against the negative effects of annexation — was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in April.
"The only way to get it heard by the Legislature is through a lobbyist," Lealman fire Capt. Jim Millican said. "Someone has to get the word to all the legislators why this bill is important."
Although the economic downturn has caused local government agencies to make tough budget decisions, many are still carving out room for Tallahassee lobbyists. Numerous city and county governments have long-standing relationships with firms while others, like Lealman, hire lobbyists as needed.
In total, millions of dollars in public funds are spent statewide to influence decisionmakers in Tallahassee. A Times/Herald analysis of lobbyist compensation reports for the first three months of 2012 shows that spending by local agencies will fall somewhere between $3.1 million and $9.2 million. (Lobbyists are required to provide only ranges of their compensation.)
That amount doesn't include salaries paid to in-house governmental relations staff or the additional dollars paid for memberships to trade associations, which also have Tallahassee lobbyists.
Miami-Dade County contracts with eight lobbying firms. The school system, clerk of courts, transportation agencies, Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and 21 municipalities have lobbyists, too. All told, government agencies in the county spent between $620,000 and $1.2 million during the first three months of the year.
At least $210,000 was spent on lobbying by Tri-Rail, the commuter train system that runs from Palm Beach County to Miami, though some of that money will stretch the entire year. Government affairs manager Vicki Wooldridge said she relies on lobbyists from a handful of firms to assist her at state, federal and local levels.
"The easy answer is, I can't be everywhere all the time," Wooldridge said, noting she doesn't have other in-house staff.
In Tallahassee, Tri-Rail constantly pushes for additional funding or is working with the Department of Transportation on various issues, she said. There is also legislation to monitor, such as a bill this session that altered the Tri-Rail board's structure.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the legislative process can be long and complicated, and lobbying firms are beneficial. Lobbyists can help draft bills and track them through the process, especially when it comes to highly specialized or technical issues, Fasano said.
But he still encourages local government agencies to use a resource that doesn't cost them anything: working directly with their elected officials.
"I'm a big believer that the counties and the cities can avoid some of the expenses that they have by having a good relationship with their legislative delegations," he said.
The economic downturn may have caused some agencies to cut back on their representation in Tallahassee.
Ninety municipalities hired lobbyists during the legislative session, and 33 of the state's 67 county commissions, according to the Times/Herald analysis. That number rises to 46 counties when school systems, sheriff's offices and other agencies are added in. In 2006, the Times reported that 126 cities and 43 counties had lobbyists.
Hillsborough County public schools have two outside lobbyists under contract. Former Gov. Bob Martinez is paid $30,000 plus expenses annually. Former school system employee Jim Hamilton is paid $60,000 each year to track financing and facilities issues.
Their roles are very different, said Connie Milito, the district's chief government relations officer.
Hamilton keeps up with revenue projections and the ever-changing school-funding formulas. Milito calls on Martinez when the school system needs help reaching out to individual lawmakers on issues that could get lost in the shuffle. This session, it was to garner attention for a student-authored bill regarding homeless teens.
With Martinez's help, the student initiative ultimately became law, she said. "He's like somebody whose voice can be heard."
Tia Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.