County money for PCS lobbyist hopefully well spent

Published 4:34 pm Wednesday, April 22, 2009

By Staff
In a display of much-needed unity, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted Monday to spend $50,000 to help PCS Phosphate gain a permit to expand its operations.
The money will be used to hire the Ferguson Group lobbying firm to intercede with federal officials on behalf of the mining company. The firm is expected to also coordinate a visit by the commissioners to Washington, D.C.
The $50,000 will come from the county’s fund balance, which is essentially its savings account, explained Beaufort County Manager Paul Spruill.
PCS has been applying for the expansion permit for the past eight years. The company blames work delays and associated job cuts on excessive environmental regulations. Environmentalists contend the company itself is largely to blame for the length of the process.
The mine-expansion issue is now in the hands of the Washington, D.C., office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is about half-way through its 30-day time limit for review. Because of that, lobbying efforts are expected to be intense, Spruill said.
Spruill and the commissioners seem to agree that PCS represents more than a private corporation, and that the economic health of the county depends on the company’s vitality. PCS Phosphate is the largest employer in the county and contributes significantly to its tax base.
Spruill recently called the permit the biggest public policy issue in the county for 50 years, and one commissioner, Robert Cayton, noted that many other businesses rely on PCS Phosphate as a customer.
It’s difficult to argue with any of that, though the notion of spending $50,000 of taxpayer money on a lobbyist strikes us as potentially wasteful.
Disturbing, too, is that the decision to allocate the money came after commissioners met privately with PCS officials last week to determine ways the county could help the company.
Though the North Carolina Open Meetings Law allows some flexibility on the matter, we believe commissioners acting in their public capacity should never meet behind closed doors unless discussing personnel matters.
In this case, the public might have been interested to know a deal was being struck to spend $50,000 of its money. But while we don’t like the process under which the agreement was struck, we do believe these funds will serve an important purpose.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that smooth-talking lobbyists will persuade congressional leaders and staff any more successfully than could firebrands Hood Richardson, Stan Deatherage and the rest of the county board.
And given our economic crisis, $50,000 isn’t chicken feed.
So, we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.
When all the smoke clears, we hope PCS is granted its permit and that the company and environmentalists find long-term common ground. Beaufort County doesn’t need a continuous tug of war.