BRUNSWICK — Last year was a landmark in Statehouse lobbying for the town.
It was no coincidence that it was also the year a feud between local and state officials came to a boil over redevelopment efforts at the former naval air station.
Brunswick reported spending more than $20,000 to lobby state government – more than the combined total spent by four other municipalities that also reported lobbyist expenditures with the Maine Ethics Commission last year, according to a recent review of disclosure reports.
The lower-spending communities included the cities of Bangor, Biddeford, Old Town and Portland, which each spent an average of just over $4,500.
But the total Brunswick spent for services from the Portland-based Preti Flaherty law firm, which recently was hired as the town’s primary legal counsel, was closer to $50,000, according to Town Manager Gary Brown.
Andy Cashman, a Preti Flaherty attorney who led Brunswick’s lobbying team, explained that less was reported to the state because not all of the firm’s lobbying activities met the state’s statutory definition.
For Brown and other local officials, the unusually high expenses last year signified the town’s high stakes in protecting redevelopment efforts at the former U.S. Navy base, now known as Brunswick Landing.
While Brunswick is a member of the Maine Municipal Association, which provides Statehouse lobbying for its members, Brown said hiring an outside firm was necessary because the town is in a unique situation.
“Brunswick is the only community that really has a significant redevelopment going on as result of the closure of a naval air station,” he said.
Brown said the spending was worth it, partly because the town was able to fend off legislation from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development that could have exempted Kestrel Aircraft, an aeronautics business at Brunswick Landing, from paying property taxes to the town.
And besides one bill passed in the town’s favor, there were two others that never moved forward, also to the town’s liking.
“Anything we were concerned about was withdrawn or never materialized,” Brown said, “so we have to credit Preti Flaherty with protecting the town’s interests.”
Town Council Chairman Benet Pols, who said he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about hiring Preti Flaherty to lobby, agreed with Brown.
“We got what we needed,” Pols said. “We got what we expected.”
But while Brown and Pols credited the town’s Statehouse presence with the DECD’s withdrawal of its tax exemption bill, state Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, contested that claim.
“The governor pulled the tax exemption bill because the town’s legislative delegation went down to see him before the town hired its lobbyist,”Gerzofsky said. “The governor pulled that before the lobbyist actually started, so the town had no actual impact on that.”
Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the quasi-municipal agency in charge of developing the former base, has maintained that Kestrel is not taxable, although the company was denied a tax abatement by the town last summer.
Steve Levesque, MRRA executive director, said his board of trustees has yet to determine how to move forward in its disagreement with the town, although it could possibly entail seeking a declaratory judgement from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Gerzofsky, who had been at odds with the town in the past, was also involved with another exception to the town’s lobbying success, and it came in the form of a bill that supported the town’s past ambitions to reclaim a seat on the MRRA board.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, would have given the Town Council and the Topsham Board of Selectmen two direct board appointments each to the board.
Testimony in support of the bill came from Cashman, former Town Council Chairwoman Suzan Wilson, a representative from Brunswick Landing developer Priority Group of Topsham, and former MRRA board member Art Boulay.
But with strong opposition from the DECD, Gerzofsky and state Rep. Charlie Priest, D-Brunswick, the bill ultimately died on the Senate floor.
Gerzofsky said he opposed the bill because it was inappropriate for a town to have a direct appointment to any state board. But he had also opposed the town’s past efforts to get Brown, in particular, reappointed to the MRRA board.
“(The town) would have saved a whole lot of money because they got no worth for it,” he said, referring to the town’s lobbying of the bill. “And it didn’t take any effort (to kill the bill). I was the only one who testified (against it) in committee.”
Looking back on it now, Pols said he wouldn’t have minded if the bill passed.
But he also said Brunswick has strong representation on the MRRA board now, with Sally DelGreco and John Peters representing the area.
“That’s my personal perspective: that we’re well served by our board members who happen to be from Brunswick,” Pols said.
Despite his past disagreements with the town, Gerzofsky said he’s looking forward to working with what the Town Council has recently described as its “new direction.”
“I think there’s going to be a lot more working out the problem and coming up with solutions together,” he said, adding that it should be the town’s legislative delegation that should be lobbying for the town. “Lobbyist is the job that I was hired for, and I’m cheap.”
But in case Brunswick needs extra lobbyist help again, Pols said it will be easier this time, since Preti Flaherty is now the town’s chief legal representative.
“If we confront another situation with regard to school construction funding, or if for some reason the Maine Municipal Association can’t help us, we already have them,” he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”