August 25, 2009

County Leg: Fire The Lobbyists

Two weeks ago, Niagara Times broke news that County Manager Greg Lewis was misusing lobbyists hired by the County Legislature for a cool $30K, having them devote all their efforts to his ego-driven priorities: namely, a countywide wi-fi initiative and the Gregory D. Lewis Public Works Facility, a $42 million project in a cow pasture in Cambria.

When news reached us last week that the lobbyists hadn’t changed course, we were duly disturbed. After all, we’d hope that calling out Lewis like that would light a fire under some legislator, maybe even Bill Ross, to demand Lewis stop using the lobbyists for pie-in-the-sky “projects” and start focusing on real, concrete, shovel-ready projects. But then we remembered that this is the same Legislature that let Lewis negotiate his own pre-signed contract and made them ratify it.

But news that reached us yesterday after we returned from vacation convinced us that at least one person—namely, Gregory D. Lewis—has been reading our blog.

At 2:02 p.m. Monday afternoon, Lewis sent the following email, titled “Federal Stimulus Request Update,” to department heads throughout Niagara County’s government:

Dear Department Heads,

At the County Legislature's direction, the County is organizing to describe our status with regard to stimulus funding . Please read the message below and directly respond to Ben Biddel accordingly. This will enable the County to have an updated status on stimulus funding for the County Legislature's review. Your assistance is appreciated.

My best,

Gregory D. Lewis
Niagara County Manager
Telephone 716.439.7006

The email contained 18 PDF attachments for proposed stimulus projects from various government agencies. Reading through the 18 documents—many of them containing page after page of proposed projects, one thing became clear: the county’s lobbying firm hasn’t delivered jack.

With helpful notes like, “The Department of Economic Development was advised by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and NYS Empire State Development that this project is not eligible for funding under any of their programs” and “The Department of Economic Development continues to monitor potential State and Federal funding opportunities” and “Letter from SED does not identify a project sponsor or any specific projects/programs, so it can only be assumed that this letter pertains to projects from NCCC” and “NYS Office of Community Renewal provided a letter for a Niagara County Department of Public Health project, but the letter does not reference which project” and “Letter from NYSDEC indicates that a funding source could not be identified, but funding may be available through NYS Environmental Facilities Corporation or NYSDEC Water Quality Improvement Project Program” we’re left scratching our head as to what, exactly, we’re getting for that $30,000. Because it sure as hell doesn’t look like results.

Basically, after Lewis hand-picked Capitol Public Strategies to manage stimulus-funding lobbying efforts for the county, all they seem to be producing is one excuse after another, written in bureaucratese.

In fact, the only positive news in the whole report is that the county received $900,000 for its brownfields program. Unfortunately, as the report notes, that was because County Senior Planner Amy Fisk wrote up her own proposal and sent it in independent of the county’s stimulus request, and without any participating by the county’s lobbyists. (In case you ever wondered what, exactly, “chutzpah” was, mentioning Fisk’s funding in this report qualifies.)

Hiring a lobbyist was a good idea turned bad by Greg Lewis’ mismanagement of the program. Now, it may be too late to reap any benefits. But it’s also clear to us from the notes on various projects that Capitol Public Strategies was clearly too busy pursuing everything but shovel-ready initiatives. That not a dollar has been won for road or bridge repairs speaks volumes.

We’ve already said our peace on Lewis. However, let us be clear: Capitol Public Strategies has been complicit in this failure. As they are being paid $5,000 a month for this failed project, it’s time to cut our losses and cut them loose.

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