Towns weigh beach lobbying contract

On the heels of a Dec. 4 meeting with Paul Ordal of beach replenishment lobbying firm Marlowe & Co. and extensive erosion from a Thanksgiving storm that dramatically affected both towns, officials in Bethany Beach and South Bethany have had a decision to ponder: Do they want to sign on for another year of lobbying services with Marlowe, or is a change of course in order?

The joint contract between the two coastal towns and Marlowe & Co. is due to expire Dec. 31 and is up for renewal for an additional year, until Jan. 1, 2008. Some property owners have questioned how much good the lobbying services have done, with just $3.3 million of the estimated $17.7 million in federal funding for the two-town beach reconstruction project in the bank.

Thanks to contract restrictions added with the 2006-fiscal-year federal budget, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will run the project, is also now restricted from starting the project ahead of full funding appropriations. And that means not a single grain of sand has been added to either dwindling shoreline.

“I have to wonder, what is Marlowe really doing? I hear what they’re doing, but nothing changes,” said South Bethany Councilman John Fields at the town’s December council meeting, Dec. 8, ahead of the council’s vote on whether to renew the contract.

His comments echoed the doubts of Bethany Beach property owner Hal Marian, who tasked Ordal with a measure of his success at the Dec. 4 workshop held in Bethany. “How do you rate your success?” Marian asked. “I measure it in sand, and I see no sand.”

Neither Fields nor Marian are alone in their doubts about the impact of the lobbying. The possible need for an additional “appropriations” lobbyist was discussed at a recent meeting of the Bethany Beach Intergovernmental Relations Committee, as was the possibility of changing lobbyists in favor of such an appropriations specialist, or even just focusing on direct contact from citizens and officials in the two towns.

Bethany Beach Town Council Member Tracy Mulligan posed that question to Ordal on Dec. 4. “Do you need help?” Mulligan asked, boiling down the issues. Ordal issued a simple and intense denial – “No,” he said, adding that his firm not only specializes in beach replenishment projects but in getting funding appropriated for them.

“It is a very critical time for the project,” Ordal said, suggesting that the coming months may bring a breakthrough in federal budgeting related to the project, after years of trying to get it moving.

Indeed, those most deeply involved in gaining support for funding of the reconstruction have suggested that full funding in a single year — perhaps even in the overdue 2007-fiscal-year budget, or in 2008’s — could be forthcoming, as opposed to the smaller amounts that have been granted in previous years and were proposed for 2007’s budget.

While no funding was approved on the U.S. House of Representatives side of things for 2007 (as was also the case in 2006), the Senate committee drafting its budget for 2007 had proposed an additional $3.3 million. That number could have changed — up or down — before passage or during final budget negotiations between the two bodies. But there are now hopes that even more funding might be obtained under Democratic funding priorities with the change of Congressional control in January — perhaps even full funding.

As it stands, no action on the funding is expected before mid-February, and perhaps as late as October, with the 2008 budget. And citizens of both towns are increasingly concerned that funding and construction timetables be successfully ironed out soon – before winter storms do more damage to their beaches.

But officials have repeatedly expressed confidence in Ordal’s work, supporting his suggestion that even temporary replenishment efforts wait as long as possible, to avoid inadvertently sabotaging federal funding for the full reconstruction project.

“They should put in another $3 million this year, at least,” South Bethany Mayor Gary Jayne said Dec. 8. “It could be the whole thing.”

“This is the only lobbying company that does exclusively beach replenishment,” Jayne reminded his constituents and fellow council members in advance of their vote on whether to renew the Marlowe & Co. contract. “If they’re not working for us, they could be working for someone else. The pot of money is only so big. I’d rather have him working for us than someone else.”

South Bethany Councilman Jay Headman also noted that the two towns were Ordal’s only clients with a project awaiting construction funding, possibly allowing him to push that funding through more easily than if the project were competing for the lobbyist’s focus.

Bethany Beach officials also encouraged patience with the lobbying efforts on Dec. 4. Bethany Mayor Carol Olmstead noted, “This is the first time we’ve sought federal money for replenishment, and it’s harder than before — more complex. I feel we’re getting very close. In the next couple of months, we’ll have an answer.”

Between them, Jayne and Olmstead assuaged the concerns of at least one person — South Bethany’s Fields, who opted to be patient at least a little while longer and joined his fellow council members in voting unanimously on Dec. 8 to renew the town’s contract with Marlowe & Co. through Dec. 31, 2007.

The $45,000 cost of that contract is to be shared equally between the two towns, at $22,500 each. Half of that share was already approved in South Bethany’s own 2007-fiscal-year budget, which runs from July 2006 to July 2007 and overlapped the calendar-year contract with Marlowe. In voting approval, council members noted that $11,250 would need to be placed in the 2008-fiscal-year budget to pay off the second half of the new contract period.

With a vote on the one-year contract extension set for their upcoming meeting on Dec. 15 at 7:30 p.m., town council members in Bethany have likewise had these issues on their minds in recent days and will have had to weigh the same question of whether to vote in favor of confidence in Ordal’s work and additional patience with the legislative process.

Prior to the vote, Jayne said that he expected his council’s counterparts in Bethany Beach to also approve the contract extension, with hopes that Ordal can finally bring the beach reconstruction project to fruition in the coming months.