Wanted: County Lobbyist - TribPapers

Wanted: County Lobbyist

Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman discusses the pros of retaining a lobbying firm.

Asheville – At the Buncombe County Commissioners’ April 5 worksession, Chair Brownie Newman said he had been hearing from “some legislators” that the county should retain a lobbying firm. The encouragement was coming from other jurisdictions within the state, like the City of Asheville, that were “getting a lot of value” out of their lobbyists.

Newman said the county hadn’t had a lobbyist for at least as long as anybody now on the board has been serving. So, he suggested contracting with a firm and then weighing the costs and benefits. To do anything this year, however, the county would have to act swiftly, as the legislative short session was about to begin.

Newman referenced a memo that had circulated among commissioners proposing a scope of work for the firm as well as broad categories of causes for which the commissioners would appreciate lobbying. In addition to these categories, Newman said there would be specific issues a lobbyist could advance, such as changing the allowed uses of the hotel tax. Currently, the Tourism Development Authority spends $25 million on television ads, but Newman thinks some of that money could be diverted to “community investment.” Another issue that could use some advocacy was extending eligibility criteria for the Homestead Exemption, to grant property tax break to qualified “seniors and other groups.” Plus, there was always room for unforeseen issues to arise.

Newman foresaw the development of an RFP process followed by contracting. Commissioner Terri Wells asked what the going rate for a lobbying contract was in the state, but nobody had those numbers. County Manager Avril Pinder then offered that the contract amounts she had seen were around $90,000 and up.

A few days later, a request for proposals was posted on the county’s website. Job responsibilities included liaising with leaders in the General Assembly and the local delegation and improving relations, reviewing legislative proposals and apprising the county commissioners and staff about developments that could have a significant impact, and helping to develop legislative agendas.

The successful applicant would be a firm with experience lobbying for an organization at least as large as Buncombe County. “Key areas” in which the lobbyists would be doing the commissioners’ bidding included, “early childhood education, economic development, environmental quality, equity and inclusion, planning and land use, public safety, public transportation, renewable energy, tax policies, telecommunication,” and goals stated in the commissioners’ annual strategic plan. Any party “engaging in investment activities” in Iran or “engaging in a boycott” of Israel, per NCGS §147-86.55-63, need not apply.

The document states that the county is committed to working with Historically Underutilized Businesses but gives no indication of to what extent the successful applicant shall comply. In many ways, the RFP reads like one of those press conference questions in which a reporter goes to great lengths to define himself. Having told the world the county is mindful of sustainability and equality, the document wouldn’t be complete without adding: Any gender-specific pronouns used herein, whether masculine or feminine, shall be read and construed as gender neutral, and the singular of any word or phrase shall be read to include the plural and vice versa. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter, anyway, because the document states the county, “reserves the right to reject any and all proposals, to waive any informality in proposals and, unless otherwise specified by the Vendor, to accept any item in the proposal.”

Applicants have only until April 19, which was seven work days minus any closings for the Easter holiday, to submit a proposal. In the interest of sustainability, it was recommended that the proposals be emailed. If that was not possible, the RFP requested that the stipulations of Executive Order 156 (1999) be followed: Even though the proposals were not to exceed 10 pages total, pages were to be printed on both sides of recycled paper of at least 30% post-consumer content. Plastic or vinyl report covers would not be accepted, but three-ring binders, glue, paper clips, and staples were acceptable forms of assembly. Lastly, “materials should be submitted in a format which allows for easy removal, filing, and/or recycling of paper and binder materials. Use of oversized paper is strongly discouraged unless necessary for clarity or legibility.” What’s more, the county will not reimburse costs for compliance with these rules.

In Other Matters –

The commissioners previewed consideration of contracting with DFI (Development Finance Initiative), an arm of the University of North Carolina School of Government, for master planning of county-owned properties. DFI describes its role as, “partnering with local governments to attract private investment for transformative projects by providing specialized finance and real estate development expertise.” The outfit would be tasked with site analysis, market analysis, financial feasibility, public-private partnership modeling, community engagement, and contract negotiations. To date, DFI has been engaged for projects in North Carolina since at least 2011; in Asheville, it was the planner for the South Slope and River Arts District development.

Presenter Tim Love explained staff wanted to work with DFI because, as a unit of government, it had many advantages over the private sector. These included DFI’s familiarity with and expertise in North Carolina law and affordable housing initiatives, sparing the county the time and effort of bringing a private contractor up to speed; plus, they would save the county the hassle of going through a procurement process, which would be required to select a private-sector contractor. Besides, DFI was already working with the county to develop the Ferry Road property, and so efficiencies of scale would be realized. 

On April 19, the commissioners will be asked to approve paying DFI $137,400 to complete work already initiated for the Ferry Road project and another $83,500 for their services with three projects downtown.

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