July 10, 2020

How to avoid surprise fees and taxes with proactive local government advocacy

By Taralinda Willis

Wooden Blocks with the text Fees


The job of the local government affairs director is a challenging one on the best of days. Understaffed and under-resourced local governments don’t always have staff available to fully examine the hidden or downstream implications of every decision they make, so businesses have to closely monitor discussions at the local level to avoid getting stung with an unfair ordinance or fee. 


Before I launched Curate as an advocacy tool, I spent almost two years meeting with local government lobbyists to understand how they kept up with the erratic and enigmatic decision-making processes at the dozens of local government branches within their coverage areas. They often felt like they had to be everywhere all the time in order to stay ahead. Their schedules were packed with networking events, council meetings, and coffee dates with lawmakers, and between those events they spent hours each week scanning Google alerts, reading dozens of local newspapers, and digging through local government websites to find meeting agendas. 


Without a systematic tool for knowing what is being talked about in a local government branch at any given time, this is the kind of effort it takes to make sure your organization has a seat at the table for key local policy decisions. 


And when relying on gossip and news briefs to stay informed, even the most experienced government affairs people miss things that end up costing their organizations thousands of dollars. 


For example, one of our clients, a utility company in Wisconsin, found us after a rural community changed the cost of a street opening permit from $50 to $5,000. Anytime the company needed to dig up a street to maintain pipes or add a service line, they’d have to pay 100 times as much as they had before. 


Had they caught wind of that fee change before it was passed, they might have been able to share how much of an undue burden it would be on their operations, and lobby for a more reasonable fee increase. 


Sudden fee increases are a major concern for many of our clients across a variety of industries. Homebuilders and developers use Curate to monitor local government meeting minutes and agendas for mentions of things like sewer connection fee increases. In Madison, that’s a particularly sore subject because in 2017, the sewerage district proposed an immediate 400 percent increase in sewer connection fees, and only after a major lobbying effort did they decide to stretch the increase out over eight years. 


Another client, the Wisconsin Realtors Association, uses Curate to identify legislative trends in communities across the state that they would otherwise only hear about if a member made a complaint. Using Curate, they can keep tabs on any municipality that makes a move to restrict homeowners rights, and if they identify a trend, they can proactively escalate the issue to the state level. 


"If we find out about issues far enough up in the process, we can eliminate problems before they become fires,” says Tom Larson, director of government affairs for Wisconsin Realtors Association. 


Using Curate alongside state and federal tracking tools


Government affairs professionals today wouldn’t dream of doing their job at the state or national level without the use of legislation tracking software. They would never walk into an event where state-level legislators and staffers are present without reviewing all of the relevant bills and regulations that are on the table or coming up, and what issues are facing resistance and which ones are gaining popularity. 


But that’s often exactly what they do when they engage with local government. They rely on networking to find out what issues are on the agenda, and then they scramble to address those issues after the fact. 


With Curate’s weekly reports, the government relations job becomes more about building grassroots support to influence future legislation than just finding proposed ordinances and hoping you have time to influence them. By providing the relevant snippets of the minutes from government meetings, as well as the agendas, Curate helps you see what’s around the corner.


We know that adding another software tool to your tool belt can be overwhelming at first. In theory, it would be nice if your state or federal tracker could do a good job alerting you about local issues, but if you’re like me, you’ve found that all-in-one software solutions only ever scratch the surface of all the problems they aim to solve. Curate allows you to dive deep into the discussions happening at over 11,000 local government entities in the U.S. - without getting overwhelmed.


When reviewing your Curate report, you can gain the same insight you’d get from sitting in on hundreds of local government meetings per month in approximately one hour per week.


Our most successful customers build a weekly habit around their Curate report, and they find that their report has created a structure around their local advocacy efforts. Instead of racing around town attending meetings to find out what’s on the agenda—or in pandemic times, filling every hour with Zoom meetings—they first read their Curate report, and then strategically plan their coffee dates and networking events to get face-time with stakeholders in the issues they know are already being discussed. 

Schedule a discovery call to find out how Curate can help you change your local government advocacy program from reactive to proactive.

June 23, 2020

3 ways to incorporate Curate’s weekly local government reports into your workflow

By Curate Team

Business people using mobile phones and laptops, calculating and discussing charts and diagrams for financial report


Curate’s most successful clients build a weekly routine around their Curate report to make sure that they never miss out on critical local government intelligence. 


But depending on the type of organization, we have seen our customers find success with a variety of approaches to using our software. 


Typically, their strategies fall into one of three approaches to using our research tool: the centralized approach, the decentralized approach, and the hybrid. 


Centralized Access and Knowledge Sharing


With the centralized approach, one team member reviews the report each week and shares the highlights with their members or coworkers. 


This approach is a favorite among statewide or regional business associations who need to inform their membership base about important local legislation in order to engage them in advocacy. Local lawmakers don’t always give a lot of credit to a statewide association appearing to complain about a proposed ordinance or fee, but they’re much more likely to listen to a local business owner talking about how the proposal would negatively or positively impact them and the jobs their business supports. 


Our customers using a centralized approach often have a process where one staff member with experience in local policymaking reviews the Curate report and flags two or three issues that are worth further research. They look into those issues to see if they represent a worrisome trend or a worthwhile opportunity, and then they share the highlights with members for their general awareness or to inspire political involvement. They might add some commentary and context to the items to make sure that business owners who aren’t current on every detail about local politics can fully understand the issue and take action. 


Decentralized Access and Independent Research


With the decentralized approach, an entire team gains access to the Curate report, and each team member reviews the section of the report that corresponds to their geographic region or topical focus. Users can filter Curate reports by county [or by keyword], making it easy for team members to share one account. 


This approach works well for business development and sales personnel, particularly in the construction industry. They don’t need a government affairs specialist to help them make sense of the projects being discussed in local government, they just need to be the first contractor in town to know about them. 


Decentralized Access combined with Centralized Research and Knowledge Sharing


The hybrid approach gives everyone in the organization access to the weekly reports as well as the Curate research database so that they can research issues on their own, but ultimately relies on one government affairs director to make sure nothing slips between the cracks. 


That centralized researcher is responsible for making sure that the Curate report is catching all of the most relevant topics for the organization, since issues shift over time. And as those issues shift, they educate the rest of their team on the background of the issue so each person will know what to look for in the reports.


Successful customers gain peace of mind by reviewing Curate every week 


Whether they use the centralized, decentralized, or a hybrid approach, our most successful customers build a weekly habit around their Curate report.


The average Curate customer tracks 94 counties in 2 states, and they spend about an hour per week reviewing their report—typically over a cup of coffee on a relaxing Friday morning.


Our customers tell us that their Curate report has created a structure around their local advocacy and business development efforts that previously felt like a game of Whack-A-Mole. And in our opinion, that’s a better outcome for both the humans and the moles.

June 08, 2020

A guide to local government advocacy following times of crisis

By Curate Team

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When a major economic shock hits the whole country, local municipal governments inevitably get hit especially hard. In order to keep providing the essential services that businesses and residents rely on, municipalities have to find creative sources of new revenue when tax revenues drop. 


In the past, that has meant new fees. And experts expect to see that happen again following the economic shock of the coronavirus. 


While raising money is necessary, fee increases can have a negative impact on businesses and consumers, and sometimes in ways that neither local officials nor industry representatives expect. 


How can a business avoid getting upended by fee increases following a time of crisis? The key is to maintain good relationships with local government officials, and advocate for yourself and your industry. 


“Municipalities need to provide services. That costs money. How you generate that revenue is a constant push-pull battle,” says Carole Schaeffer, a veteran municipal government lobbyist who led a developers’ advocacy group in Wisconsin through the aftermath of the Great Recession.


Schaeffer shared some insight with the Curate Team on how businesses, industry groups, and developers can effectively advocate for themselves at the local government level following an economic crisis.


Understand the process


Cities derive about 70 percent of their revenue from taxes and funding from higher-up branches of government. The other 30 percent comes from fees. With tax revenue down, and many cities facing limitations on levy increases, most cities are going to be looking at using new or increased fees to make up the difference. 


Cities tend to use fees in two ways. Sometimes they introduce a fee to pay for a new service. Other times, they carve out an existing service that is currently funded in the general budget into its own department and then create a fee to fund it directly. This second option frees up the money that previously was dedicated to that service to be used for a variety of other purposes. 


Municipalities typically introduce fees as part of the annual budget cycle, so it’s important to understand the timeline of your city’s budget process. In Madison, city agencies prepare their capital and operating expenses in April through July, and the first first opportunity for public input on a proposed fee typically happens in September. If you are paying attention, Schaeffer notes, you won’t be surprised by anything that is presented for public input. 


State governments often play a role in determining how municipalities can increase revenue. In many states, there are state laws that limit cities’ abilities to raise revenue through taxes or fees. For example, in Wisconsin, the state legislature added a provision in the budget in 2013 that required municipalities to make up for fee increases in activities like garbage collection, fire protection, snow plowing or street sweeping services with a comparable decrease in tax rates, which dramatically limited the city’s options for finding alternate revenue sources. 


“The state government can provide some accountability, tightening up the parameters around fees, but you do have to recognize that there are limited resources, cities have to provide all these services, and we can’t keep ratcheting up taxes,” Schaeffer says.  


Know what to expect 


This isn’t the first time municipalities have had to diversify their revenue. Looking back at some of the new measures that have been suggested or passed since 2009 can help prepare businesses for the future. 


But keep in mind, there is a key difference between this crisis and the Great Recession.


“2009 really crushed the housing segment pretty hard,” Schaeffer says. “That’s not what’s happening here, it’s not a market segment that is dying. The pain is being spread across all industries, but it’s still going to put a huge burden on local government.”


The City of Madison’s actions following the Great Recession provide a useful case study to indicate how municipalities might respond to this crisis. 


The city faced rising costs and falling tax revenues, and state laws limited how much money they could raise by increasing taxes. So the city convened an Alternative Revenue Task Force to determine what fees they could legally add that would bring in new revenue. The result of several years of study and deliberation was an Urban Forestry Fee, which was added to the monthly water bill for all property owners in the city. That fee created dedicated funding for the city’s work to maintain trees on public property throughout the city, freeing up funds from the general budget to be used elsewhere. 


Other common types of fees that cities across the country have considered or passed in the last few years include: 

  • Sidewalk cafe fees
  • Open space fees
  • Street opening fees
  • Vehicle registration fees


In addition to scanning public documents for keywords related to these types of fees, Schaeffer says she also paid close attention to all ad hoc committees that were introduced following the Great Recession. 


“Anytime there would be a new ad hoc committee, you knew that whatever came out of it would cost money,” Schaeffer says. “And the city was not going to pay for it.”


Build trust with your local elected officials 


In all dealings with local government, it helps to be proactive, Schaeffer says. If you don’t hear about a proposed fee until it is on the agenda for a vote at a city council meeting, you will almost certainly be too late to influence the outcome of the vote or the structure of the fee. 


“Municipal government is a different animal than state government,” Schaeffer says. “You don’t know where ideas will come from.”


The best way to know what kind of fees and programs are in the pipeline is to stay in direct contact with local lawmakers. Schaeffer recommends reaching out to elected officials and city economic development directors to begin discussing ways to work together to address municipal budget shortfalls. 


But Schaeffer says it’s important to come in good faith, because a trusting relationship will ensure the best outcomes. 


Developers, industry representatives, and professional lobbyists can all bring valuable practical experience and expertise to the table to help lawmakers accomplish what they are trying to accomplish without unintended negative consequences. 


“It’s about reaching out to your local officials and saying, “Listen, we know we’re all going to be in a world of hurt. How can we work together to help you generate revenue in an efficient way?” 


Curate can help you stay in the know about new fees that could affect your business with customized weekly reports. Schedule a discovery call to find out how Curate can help you minimize the risk of local policy change.

May 27, 2020

8 virtual networking tips to help you find new opportunities during COVID-19

By Curate Team

Business people attending videoconference meeting-1

A typical week—not during a pandemic—for Cassidy Wartenweiler includes as many in-person meetings as possible. 

Wartenweiler works in project development for Eppstein Uhen Architects in Madison, Wis., and it’s not unusual for her to make an eight-hour round-trip drive for a meeting with a prospect.  A people-person through and through, she thrives in large networking events, where she can check in with 20 or 30 different connections in one place and make new connections through casual encounters.  

So what does business development look like when in-person meetings are out of the question? 

Wartenweiler has been embracing the shift to virtual networking, and she has found new ways to do what she has always done: get in front of people, listen to them, develop relationships, and provide value.

Here are seven tips Wartenweiler shared about how to find new opportunities through virtual networking, even during a pandemic.


Use private messages.

One of the first rules of networking is to always show up early, and that applies to virtual events as well, especially if the platform is Zoom. Zoom allows for private messages between attendees, so Wartenweiler takes advantage of the lull before events start to say hello to people she knows and introduce herself to other attendees. “Clearly we have similar interests or we wouldn’t both be there,” she says. “So I’ll just write something like, ‘Hey, we’ve never met before, I’m Cassidy—I’d love to connect afterward.’”


Get fluent in all of the top platforms.

Don’t just limit yourself to the virtual video conferencing platform you’ve always used,  Wartenweiler says. Microsoft Teams provides a crisp picture quality for groups of four or fewer, but if you’re meeting with more people, Zoom allows more faces on-screen at a time, keeping people more engaged. Google Hangouts can be a good way to connect one-on-one without being distracted by looking at your own face. 

If you know how to use multiple platforms, you can put your meeting attendees at ease by offering to use the platform they are most familiar with. 

When deciding which platform to use or how to structure a meeting, ask yourself the same questions you would ask for an in-person event: Who is your audience? Does everyone know each other? Can everyone see each other? How do we get everyone engaged? 


Find creative ways to surprise and delight prospects.

Wartenweiler’s networking style reflects her lively personality, so she has been finding ways to bring that creativity to virtual meetings. One idea she’s considering is inviting a prospect to coffee and then mailing them a mug with her company’s logo and a bag of local coffee. She’s also thinking about how to throw a virtual dinner party for a client by teaming up with a local chef to do a virtual cooking class. And to stay connected with a women’s group, she tried leading the attendees through preparing a cocktail with the utensils she had on hand. She’s no mixologist, but it made for a fun event, she says.  

“That’s who I am—I’m goofy, vulnerable, I wear who I am on my sleeve,” she says. “With virtual networking, we have an opportunity to play around. No one has expectations about how this is supposed to work. So be vulnerable with the technology. Be willing to fail. Don’t be afraid to still be human.”


Use virtual-friendly games and engagement tools wisely.

Games can be a really great way to get different people onto the screen and keep people engaged. Wartenweiler said she has seen some event hosts use games in the middle of an event to break up the monotony of staring at the screen. 

Virtual game platforms have exploded since the pandemic began, so there are many to choose from with a quick Google search. But some work better than others in a business meeting, and some require no apps at all. A few games to consider include:

  • 2 Truths and a Lie
  • Trivia (make it themed around your event for an added bonus), consider using the online learning platform Kahoot
  • Charades (participants can use a simple prompt generator)


Don’t overdose on virtual meetings.

If you were used to traveling all over your state or region for in-person meetings, you’ve probably got more time in your schedule than you’re used to. This can make room for more virtual meetings, but Wartenweiler says don’t overdo it. Those quiet hours in the car can provide a much-needed reset to recharge your social energy. Take advantage of the ability to meet with more people than usual, but set reasonable limits for yourself.


Provide value that’s relevant to the situation your clients are in. 

It’s very important to still be sensitive to the ways COVID-19 is affecting your clients. For example, Wartenweiler covers the health care industry, so she’s focusing on providing her clients information that is relevant to the pandemic.

And for that, she says it’s been amazing to have a nimble marketing team that immediately pivoted to create educational resources related to COVID-19. Wartenweiler has reached out to her health care clients and prospects to ask them what information they would find valuable, and then relayed that to the marketing team. 


Embrace the benefits. 

With virtual networking, you can connect with people all over the country without the expense of travel. You can host large events with much lower costs, and you can make those events accessible to more people. You might even find that your virtual events get higher attendance than your in-person events. Wartenweiler says EUA had double the normal attendance for a recent virtual event compared to their typical in-person attendance. 


Learn from others 

When you run out of your own ideas for virtual networking, take a look at what your business development peers are doing. Wartenweiler says she is seizing the opportunity to learn from others who are also embracing virtual networking. She has gotten together virtually with other business development professionals to share tips, and she also engages with her peers on LinkedIn. A few names that came to mind for great virtual networking tips were Ashley Quinto Powell, Jennifer Javornik, and Maurice Cheeks


It’s the wild west of networking

In this strange new reality, there are no rules about how to build and maintain the relationships that keep your pipeline active. There’s no right or wrong, so experiment and be willing to make mistakes. As long as you stay focused on building genuine relationships, you can meet your goals and even exceed them during the pandemic. Through it all, Curate has been dedicated to delivering the relevant municipal information to our clients to build relationships and opportunities at scale. If you would like to learn more about how Curate can help you and your team, click here.

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