ST. HELENA — After 10 years and $1.6 million, the St. Helena City Council is running out of patience with its Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.

The Carmen Group’s primary mission is to secure $19.5 million in federal reimbursements for the $30 million flood project. That funding was “authorized” by Congress in 2007, but is still several steps away from being appropriated.

On Tuesday, council members wondered aloud if those steps are insurmountable, with a plethora of more pressing public works projects competing for a small pot of federal money. The council asked city staff to report back March 12 on the potential consequences of abandoning the lobbying efforts.

Councilmember Sharon Crull said paying the Carmen Group $1.6 million since 2003 has been “a necessary evil,” since there’s little chance of ever getting the $19.5 million without professional lobbying services.

But with only $200,000 remaining in the city’s allocation of Measure A sales tax money and the Carmen Group seeking $134,000 for another year of lobbying, Crull wondered if it’s time to “walk away.”

The Napa County Flood Control District also contracts with the Carmen Group to lobby for federal funds for Napa’s flood control project. The current year’s contract is for $150,000.

The county district has contracted with the Carmen Group since 1995, paying a total of $2.6 million, according to a district report. Federal allocations since then have exceeded $100 million.

Without the Carmen Group’s efforts, St. Helena officials could continue lobbying on their own, but City Manager Gary Broad made it clear that he doesn’t have enough staff resources to mount any kind of campaign that would rival the Carmen Group’s.

Councilmember Peter White cautioned against “throwing everything away when we’re so close to the finish line.”

The $19.5 million in federal reimbursements would repay Measure A and free up funding for other projects at Sulphur Creek, York Creek and Bell Canyon. Without any reimbursements to Measure A, there won’t be any money available for those projects.

The council agreed to send White and Councilmember Greg Pitts on a lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in April to meet with federal officials and representatives of the Carmen Group “to make sure we’re not being sold a bill of goods,” as Crull put it.

According to the 2007 legislation, the city can’t receive any federal reimbursements until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts a feasibility study finding that the flood project meets its standards.

Last year, the city and the Corps agreed to split the cost of the study, with each side contributing roughly $600,000. However, the Corps hasn’t received any federal appropriations for its half of the study.

Since the city built the flood project before the Corps conducted its study, the city is at a disadvantage, said Crull, forced to compete with public works projects around the country that are unbuilt but desperately needed.

The Carmen Group insists that its lobbying efforts have been crucial in securing the Corps’ cooperation and in reducing the length of the study from three years to 15 months. The firm’s next step would be to secure federal funding for the study.

Yet on Tuesday other council members  were sounding increasingly sympathetic to John Milliken, a longtime critic of the lobbying contract who believes the city’s chances of ever receiving federal reimbursements are virtually nil.

Council members asked staff to investigate the risks of severing the Carmen Group contract, get a realistic assessment of the city’s chances of ever getting federal reimbursements, and present a breakdown of the firm’s claim that it’s secured $9.4 million in funding for local projects.

Council members also proposed other options, such as approaching other lobbying firms or making the city’s fees to the Carmen Group performance-based rather than a flat rate.

A smaller component of the Carmen Group’s contract is aimed at severing the city’s partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the removal of the Upper York Creek Dam.

The city has tried to work with the Corps on a cost-sharing agreement to remove the dam, which has caused environmental problems by inadvertently releasing built-up sediment into the creek. But the Corps hasn’t received any federal funding for its share of the project, and city officials believe the project is more likely to get done if the city ends its partnership with the Corps and applies for grants on its own.

The city has been relying on the Carmen Group’s federal connections to work toward dissolving the partnership with the Corps, which is proving to be another long, complicated process.

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