In the aftermath of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's death, Pinellas County has hired a lobbyist to give it the voice in Washington it lost last fall with the passing of Florida's longest-serving congressman.
"Bill told us many times: 'You don't need a lobbyist. You don't need to spend money on that. You have me,' " said county Commissioner Susan Latvala, remembering how Young urged commissioners to "pick up the phone and call me."
And for many years, they did.
Since 2011, when the county ended its contract with Patton Boggs to save money while its tax revenue was falling, Pinellas hasn't retained a D.C. lobbyist. But last month, county officials signed a new contract with Van Scoyoc Associates Inc., the lobbying firm where Young's successor and former aide, newly elected U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, worked before leaving to start his own company.
Latvala said the county chose Van Scoyoc not to get closer to Jolly, but to follow another longtime Young aide, Harry Glenn, who was the late congressman's chief of staff and recently took a job with Van Scoyoc. Glenn did not return a call seeking comment.
Glenn "was our go-to person" in Young's office, Latvala said. "He knows us, he knows the county, and he knows all the things the congressman did for us."
The main purpose of Pinellas' one-year, $95,000 contract with Van Scoyoc is to have a louder voice on Capitol Hill when it comes to rising flood insurance rates. Though Congress has voted to reverse some provisions of the 2012 law that led to higher rates, many commissioners remain worried that future rate changes will eat away at housing values and hurt the local economy. They also don't want to be surprised by new legislation's consequences, as they were last year when Pinellas property owners began receiving more costly flood insurance bills with rates dictated by the Biggert-Waters act.
"None of us knew this flood insurance issue had boiled up as fast as it did, or we would have been up in D.C. a year ago fighting it then," said Commissioner Karen Seel. "I don't want to find, in hindsight, that another important issue has come up that we have to spend a lot of money on trying to make sure it does no harm."
There are other issues on the horizon as well. If Pinellas voters approve a one-cent sales tax increase this November for light rail and expanded bus service, the county will need federal transportation money to supplement the tax dollars devoted to the project. And though the county has secured funding to restore some of its beaches this year, natural erosion and storm damage will probably have it back before Congress soon, asking for more.