Thursday, June 13, 2024

Pender launches new $42K lobbying program, legislative priorities include PFAS regulation

At the Monday commissioner meeting, county attorney Patrick Buffkin requested approval of a $42,000 per year lobbying contract with national law firm Maynard Nexsen to initiate Pender’s new intergovernmental affairs program, which will focus on achieving the county’s state and federal legislative objectives. (Courtesy Pender County Facebook)

PENDER COUNTY — One of the fastest growing counties in North Carolina is initiating a new effort to gain influence in the General Assembly.

READ MORE: Beach towns gear up for ambitious state and federal lobbying effort, firm on $9K monthly retainer

At the Monday commissioner meeting, county attorney Patrick Buffkin requested approval of a $42,000 per year lobbying contract with national law firm Maynard Nexsen to initiate Pender’s new intergovernmental affairs program, which will focus on achieving the county’s state and federal legislative objectives.

Buffkin’s presentation included goals such as grant funding for infrastructure projects, the construction of a new law enforcement center, and opposing deregulation of emerging contaminants with an emphasis on PFAS compounds. 

Chair Brad George said he believed the contract would pay off in the long run due to the increased role of lobbying in the legislative process; nonprofit Carolina Forward found lobbying expenditures in North Carolina hit an all-time record of $65.3 million in 2022. 

“I’ve talked to some of our surrounding counties and cities that had a presence last session in Raleigh that did very well,” George said at the meeting. “It appears that that’s the route you have to take now to get your name up there. You have to have somebody there all the time knocking on doors and shaking hands. It’s a shame that it’s got to that point.”

Several counties and towns in the Cape Fear region use lobbyists, including New Hanover County, which paid a state and federal total of $262,210 in 2023. Utilities companies, such as Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Brunswick Water and Sewer H2GO, paid $55,000 and $28,926 in 2023. Most recently Topsail Beach Shoreline Protection Commission signed with a new state lobbyist a few months ago for $4,000 a month and paid out $30,000 in federal lobbying fees in the first quarter of 2024.

George, Jerry Groves, and Wendee Fletcher-Hardee unanimously approved the request; spokesperson Brandi Cobb told Port City Daily commissioners Jackie Newton and Fred McCoy were unable to attend the meeting due to illness and a family loss. 

Buffkin said environmental issues are a major focus for the county, which will lobby for increased grant funding to expand clean water access to well users. Cobb said the Columbia-Union area of the county has the most residents disconnected from water infrastructure; exact figures were not immediately available and this will be updated upon county response.

Pender is involved in two class action lawsuits against PFAS producers — one against 3M and another against Chemours, DuPont, and Corteva — and has been addressing the issue with its granulated-activated system since 2012. Pender’s GAC was implemented years before other local regions to reduce disinfection byproduct compounds.

The attorney said Pender had not yet determined if it would support PFAS manufacturers paying for filtration technology or a statewide public spending effort to meet new EPA regulations on the compounds. Last week, county utilities executive director Anthony Colon expressed concern to PCD that the new regulations would put more financial responsibility on utilities than PFAS producers.

“We’re following it very closely,” he said. “We’ll know a lot more over the next month or so.”

Tim Buckland, the intergovernmental affairs director for New Hanover County, told PCD the county’s legislative goals also include enforceable PFAS standards and legislation to hold PFAS manufacturers financially responsible for remediation and cleanup.

Additionally, Pender is lobbying to oppose changes to upstream inter-basin transfers — the movement of surface water from one river basin to another — that could threaten the county’s water supply. He mentioned previous efforts to weaken regulations of the transfers, used by utilities, which Pender believes would diminish oversight. 

Another top focus is state support for the construction of a new county Law Enforcement Center, projected to cost more than $65 million after inflation of material and labor raised estimates by $24 million. The county has not yet selected a construction firm for the project, but is working on design with Moseley Architects and engineering firm WithersRavenel.

The attorney described the issue as the county’s first priority because of the need for more space for incarcerated individuals in the rapidly growing county, implementing a new 911 center, and because of the current facility’s age. Cobb told PCD the Pender’s jail was built in 1978 and the Sheriff’s office was built in the early 1970s.

Other legislative objectives include state support for the development of non-highway roadways to increase connectivity with the county’s unincorporated areas, opposing unfair insurance increases for coastal communities, monitoring casino related legislation to ensure optimal response, supporting the consolidation of utilities, and establishing a uniform tax occupancy rate of 6% for Pender’s hotels. The rate is currently 3% in unincorporated areas, and county staff believes the higher uniform rate would help to generate revenue from Pender’s burgeoning tourism sector.

Buffkin praised each of the three lobbying firms that applied for the contract — including Ken Melton and Associates and EQV Strategic — but said county staff selected Maynard Nexsen due to the firm’s national presence and established government connections. Maynard Nexsen has 24 offices across the country, including Raleigh, Charlotte, and Greensboro.

Lobbyist David Ferrell — who North State Journal ranked as a top NC lobbyist in 2020, 2021, and 2022 — will lead the initiative alongside Clark Reimer and Chase Horton. Buffkin noted the contract does not have hourly requirements.

“With lobbying, you can sit around the General Assembly for two or three weeks, and then have a 5-minute conversation that solves a problem,” he said. “And it is really difficult to tell whether you should bill someone for all three weeks or just 5 minutes. So most people agree to do these flat-fee arrangements like we have with Maynard Nexen, and the understanding is they’re going to do what it takes to achieve our goals.”

The three Maynard Nexsen lobbyists work together for other principals, according to the Secretary of State lobbying directory’s most recent filing. They include:  

  • The Sports Betting Alliance 
  • Rush Street Gaming LLC 
  • Piedmont Lithium Carolinas, Inc. 
  • North Carolina Spirits Association
  • North Carolina Land Title Association
  • North Carolina Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors
  • Lonestar Logos
  • Lenovo NA, Inc.
  • HDR Engineering Inc. of the Carolinas
  • American Council of Engineering Companies of NC
  • Topsail Island Shoreline Protection Commission

Buffkin said the intergovernmental affairs program will focus on state goals for the 2024 short session and evolve to addressing federal issues in coming years.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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