City has paid lobbyist $110,000 for influence in Raleigh

  • Posted: Saturday, April 13, 2013 12:09 a.m.

SALISBURY — The city of Salisbury has paid a high-powered lobbyist $110,000 since 2011 to influence state lawmakers on issues ranging from Fibrant to the Rowan County airport.

The city continues to pay a $5,000 monthly retainer to Fetzer Strategic Partners in Raleigh. In 2012, firm founder and President Tom Fetzer was ranked the second most influential lobbyist in the state by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.

Salisbury first hired the firm in March 2011, according to documents filed with the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

Before hiring Fetzer, the city used three other lobbyists starting in 2009, including current City Manager Doug Paris. He was registered as the city’s local government liaison in Raleigh from January to November 2011 and received no fee. Fetzer and firm members Susan Fetzer Vick and Katherine L. Fetzer all lobby for Salisbury at the General Assembly, trying to sway lawmakers in Salisbury’s favor on issues including municipal broadband, removing the airport from the city limits and “any legislation that would disrupt the financial stability of our budget and as a result impact our citizens,” Paris said.

“I used to do this work. I no longer can now that I am city manager,” he said. “It’s important work. The negative ramifications of bills in Raleigh can be to the tune of millions in cost impact to our city.”

The bill to remove the airport from the city limits, which Salisbury is fighting, cleared its first N.C. House committee Wednesday and is headed to a finance committee.

Paris praised Fetzer’s work advocating for Salisbury and pointed to several results he said were positive for the city, including Salisbury’s exemption from the 2012 state law regulating government-owned broadband utilities like Fibrant. Salisbury’s exemption was considered the most favorable among cities that had already launched broadband utilities. Without the exemption, city leaders said Fibrant could have gone out of business, leaving the city with millions of dollars in debt.

Paris said Fetzer helped land $290,000 in state funding for sidewalk and streetscape improvements on North Lee Street.

Paris also listed as beneficial for Salisbury the firm’s work regarding the impact on cities of the state’s unemployment debt solution, as well as state budget discussions and potential tax reform.

The N.C. League of Municipalities hired Fetzer’s firm in March to lobby on behalf of all cities in the state. The league has used a lobbyist since 1993.

It’s not unusual for cities and even some towns in North Carolina to hire a lobbyist. Some larger cities have a lobbyist on staff. Salisbury is among about two dozen N.C. municipalities registered with the state to use lobbyists.

In the past, Fetzer’s firm has lobbied for several cities, including Lexington and Goldsboro. Salisbury is Fetzer’s only active municipal client, other than the league, according to the N.C. Secretary of State’s office.

As a former mayor of Raleigh, Fetzer is uniquely qualified to lobby for cities, said Ellis Hankins, executive director of the League of Municipalities.

“Obviously, the mayor and City Council members and city manager can’t be in Raleigh every day,” Hankins said.

Cities may retain a lobbyist when they have a particular bill to support or fight, he said.

“For smaller cities, it tends to be just when very significant issues arise,” Hankins said.

Salisbury may retain a lobbyist year-round because legislative discussions and study committees operate even when the General Assembly is not in session, he said.

For about five years, Kannapolis has retained a federal lobbyist in Washington, D.C., City Manager Mike Legg said. With Paris Fisher’s help, the city was able to pull down millions of dollars every year in federal earmarks in the form of capital projects like transportation improvements, Legg said.

“We paid them $100,000 a year, and it was well worth it,” Legg said.

Now that Congress has done away with most earmarks, the city is using Fisher for corporate recruitment rather than lobbying, Legg said.

“I don’t know exactly where it’s headed now but more in the economic development realm,” he said.

The city’s public relations firm, Walker Marketing, does some lobbying in Raleigh for Kannapolis, but not much, Legg said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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