Cities spend big money lobbying for stimulus funds
Congress is hammering out the final details of a stimulus bill that will send hundreds of millions of dollars into America's cash-strapped cities and towns. But even Congress admits there won't be enough money to go around. So local governments are looking to professional lobbyists to help them get a piece of the pie. "We're looking for the stimulus package funding for our South Trade Street project," says Matthews Mayor Lee Myers. "We've certainly been clamoring for some help with the Charlotte Monroe Executive Airport," adds Monroe City Manager Craig Meadows. And Concord City Manager Brian Hiatt add, "We've got a major traffic issue at Weddington Rd and I-85." Those are just a fraction of the projects Myers, Meadows and Hiatt hope to get money for in the new stimulus bill. And all three have hired the same Washington lobbyist, called The Ferguson Group, because as Matthews Mayor Myers says. "We could fly to Washington today, but I don't know who to go see in order for us to get before the right people. And that's a full-time, constant job." The Town of Matthews is paying up to seven thousand dollars a month to The Ferguson Group, which lobbies on behalf of about 120 local government entities - more than any other firm. Founder Bill Ferguson says his employees are less lobbyists and more like an extension of local government staff in Washington. "The members of (Congressional) committees and staff people are very impatient people," says Ferguson. "As they're going through their considerations, they frequently have a question that needs to be answered. They're not gonna wait for two days for the answer. They want that answer it in 10 minutes. And if you're not there to do it, that piece of paper goes into the discard pile." An example of that is a $650,000 federal grant the City of Monroe was able to secure to turn an old building into a community center. Similar stories come from Concord, too, but also underscore the potential conflicts since both are represented by the same Ferguson lobbyist - Jennifer Imo. "I'm equally as strong an advocate for one community as I am for another," says Imo. "So if both Concord and Monroe both have their airports as top priorities, we are going to do our best to make sure that their airports secure funding in one way or the other." In addition to Concord and Monroe, the Ferguson Group represents Matthews, Mooresville, High Point, Lenoir, Winston-Salem and about half a dozen more cities and counties in North Carolina. Five years ago, Charlotte ended its long-term contract with The Ferguson Group and now pays another firm $180,000 a year to be their only North Carolina client. But thus far, Monroe City Manager Craig Meadows says he's never felt slighted. "Now as they continue to pick up clients in the area, I'm sure that's something we'll be discussing with them," adds Meadows. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, cities and state governments spent more than $80 million taxpayer dollars last year on Washington lobbyists. And some of that money ended up lining Congressional pockets. The Ferguson Group's partners and employees made more than $186,000 in individual contributions to campaigns over the last two years. That's all perfectly legal, but outrageous to Leslie Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. "This is an absolutely of out-of-control system and Congress has basically stood back and allowed the process get completely captive of special interests," fumes Paige. "If I were a taxpayer at the state a local level, I'd be very, very upset at a moment when we are in such dire financial straits that any money at all is going to lobbyists." With all Washington's promises of spending right now, Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics says business for lobbyists like Ferguson is bound to get better, even in this economy. "It has become sort of an arms race," says Ritsch. "As local governments started hiring lobbyists, others looked at what they were doing and said 'Well if they've got a lobbyist, then we need to have one, otherwise we're going to lose out.'" Or, as Matthews Mayor Lee Myers puts it, "without the Ferguson Group - to do nothing - I can assure you, we would get nothing." And many cities and towns have decided that's not an option.