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City Managers Must Engage With the Federal Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
October 16, 2023

Over the years federal laws, programs and funding that have affected cities and counties have continued to change. However, their effects have remained consistently significant. These effects come from laws, regulations and funding. Many cities and county managers, especially those in smaller places, may feel that they are totally at the mercy of the federal government and are powerless to influence federal actions and decisions. My experience tells me the opposite, city and county managers can benefit greatly from engaging with federal government departments and elected representatives. This column will describe many ways in which managers can help their organizations by being an active participant in the federal government process.

Managers can participate directly or take advantage of organizations that are active in exerting influence such as the National League of Cities. While these organizations can assist in general issues common to many cities, they will not be helpful in actions directly affecting an individual city. However, professional lobbying firms can assist managers in their efforts. Many years ago while serving as a Senior Assistant County Administrator for Hillsborough County Florida (County seat is in Tampa), I became more active in the federal process—I worked with a lobbying firm to obtain $40 million in funding to assist in the upgrade of I-4 leading into the county. Hiring a lobbying firm was new to the county and a bit controversial but the investment of less than $100 thousand dollars paid a huge return.

Whether or not a lobbying firm is hired, meeting with your U.S. House of Representative members and Senators in Washington is essential. While you may see them in your city, it makes all the difference to go to DC and meet with them.

While the I-4 money was the result of obtaining an earmark of funds within congressional legislation which is no longer as available, there are still many avenues for obtaining funding for special projects. A great example is funding available for new transportation projects. As in many cities across the country, we were successful in getting a large percentage of the startup funding for the light rail system in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area when I was the Executive Director of the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG).

In addition to funding that comes from Congressional action, there are a wide range of programs administered by various federal agencies which provide large amounts of money. While these are generally considered merit based awards, I assure you that appealing directly to the department administering the grant can make the difference of obtaining funding or losing out to others. A great example is our successful effort to obtain a second Hope VI grant for Greenville, SC when I was the city manager. We spent significant effort to present our case to the decision makers in DC. It was pretty clear those efforts changed their position from not intending to give us a second grant to agreeing to fund another project.

As important as obtaining project funding is, working with regulators can also be critical. Again, an early lesson for me came in Hillsborough County. Due to past violations of the Clean Water Act because of illegal wastewater discharges prior to my arrival, the county was subject to a federal consent decree. Negotiating with the EPA for the best possible outcome made a substantial difference in the fine that the  county was ultimately assessed.

An even more important example of working with federal departments occurred during my tenure with MAG. The organization was the air quality planning agency for the region, which was in a non-attainment status for ozone, carbon monoxide and particulates. We had obtained approval of a plan for how these pollutants would be reduced to the allowable levels. This plan allowed continued use of federal transportation funding to expand our regional freeway system. This was tremendously important for the very congested region. However, a federal judge’s decision on a lawsuit by the Environmental Defense Fund involving the Atlanta area unilaterally caused the air quality plan approvals in large non-attainment regions throughout the country to be nullified. This action brought the transportation construction programs in those regions to a screeching halt the .

The EPA was about to apply this nullification to our approved air quality plan. We immediately revised the plan to overcome the issue which lead to throwing out the plans. Then, we immediately appealed to the agencies involved in this process, including not only EPA but also the Federal Highway Administration and the Justice Department. This involved escalating the issue to the decision makers for our region. I immediately flew to San Francisco to meet with the EPA Regional Administrator. We also met with all the other parties. The result was that they did not include our plan in the group that was nullified and we were able to continue without stopping our construction program.

These examples are provided to demonstrate how local government manager engagement at the federal level can make a major difference for the city, county or region.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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