By Noelle H. Lowery
During the 2014 legislative session, Florida lawmakers had a $1.2 billion budget surplus to dole out to pet projects in their districts. Marco Island City Manager Roger Hernstadt and the City Council are betting this was not an anomaly.
“This year, the Legislature had extra money and went on a buying spree,” explained Hernstatd. “(Marco Island) was not in the game. I don’t know how long this environment will last, but I felt it was worth the council’s consideration to see if they want to get into the game.”
To that end, councilors voted 5-1 during their Aug. 4 regular meeting to hire Ronald L. Book PA as the city’s first official lobbyist with an annual fee of $60,000. Councilor Amadeo Petricca voted against the measure.
Book’s job will be to help Marco Island secure state funding for a city project that has broad-based community support. Known as a “mega-lobbyist,” Book is no stranger to the lobbying game. His client list encompasses a number of Florida municipal and county governments, including Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties, as well as the cities of Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale Beach, Marathon, Miramar, North Miami, North Miami Beach, Palm Bay, Pinellas Park, Riviera Beach, Sunrise and Tallahassee. He also represents a number of private businesses and the University of Miami.
The lobbyist idea was born out of the July 24 budget workshop, when Hernstadt broached the subject. “The city needs a laser approach to getting money from other sources, state or federal,” Hernstadt told councilors during the workshop. He went on to explain that the time was ripe for Marco Island, especially considering the political strength of its local legislators — Florida Senator Garrett Richter and Florida Rep. Kathleen Passidomo. While Richter is the chair of the Senate Gaming Committee and sits on the Appropriations Committee among others, Passidomo is the chairwoman of the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee and sits on a variety of other committees.
“We have an opportunity at the state level,” Hernstadt continued during the workshop. “We have strong representation in both the House and the Senate, and this doesn’t happen but every 20 years or so. With the proper leadership on the legislative side, we could be very successful at getting some additional state funding.”
And Hernstadt should know, as he has some experience in working with lobbyists on a municipal and state level. While the city manager of Marathon, he sent lobbyists to Tallahassee work on the city’s behalf. Within two years, they had secured $1 million of funding for Marathon. Last year, Marathon’s lobbyists brought home $17 million in additional state money.
Now that City Council has approved hiring Book, the real work begins. Councilors and city staff must work together to come up with a community project that everyone will support. During both the budget workshop and the most recent City Council meeting, councilors discussed focusing on the $30 million master plan for Veterans’ Memorial Park.
According to Hernstadt, Veterans Park fits the criteria for a project that the community — and Legislature — can rally around. First, the project is shovel-ready, meaning plans have been drawn up and the project has been engineered. While the current master plan is a “dream” design of sorts, Hernstatd insisted elements of it can be used to move forward; it only needs funding.
Second, the city did a responsible thing in purchasing the property 10 years ago through a $10 million bond referendum. “The city had a shortage of space, and it borrowed money and secured the land. It also set aside a portion of the property for a veterans memorial,” Hernstadt said.
Third, the development of the park thus far has been done completely through community fundraising and donations. Thanks to the work of the Veterans’ Memorial Fundraising Committee more than $455,000 has been raised to complete the flag plaza, the memorial benches and the Freedom Fountain, and no public money was used.
Finally, the project is for veterans. Councilor Joe Batte summed up this sentiment best: “This is something we can rally around. These folks have worked really hard with very little public money except on the purchase of the property. We really need to pay back the gifts that our veterans have given to us over the years.”
Still, Hernstadt is hesitant to believe the choice of Veterans’ Park will be a lock. “Now, the question is can we agree that we should do something at Veterans’ Park,” he noted. “Can we agree that we can put multiple things in one building instead of having multiple buildings on the property? Can we deal with the hard decision that someday the landmark feature of the park will not be the Farmers’ Market? We have to be able to put away petty jealousies.”
During the Aug. 1 City Council meeting, it appeared many of the councilors were on board with Veterans’ Park. Along with Batte, councilors Bob Brown and Larry Honig voiced support for Veterans’ Park. Councilor Chuck Kiester and Chairman Honecker agreed it was a worthy project, but felt consideration needed to be given to other possibilities. Councilor Petricca was the lone voice fearing that any shortfall in the state funding would fall squarely on the shoulders of Marco Island taxpayers.
In the end, though, Hernstadt was hopeful. “This is the difference between a teenager and young adult,” he explained. “I view the city as being a teenager ready to take the next step as a young adult. We need to grow more sophisticated in what we do and how we do it…I think we have the leadership on City Council to do it…They are focused on what is good for community, and they are willing to set aside individual differences. But, it will require everyone pulling in the same direction…It will be an interesting Poli-Sci experiment.”