County board hires lobbyists

Published 7:25 pm Saturday, February 18, 2012

For the second year in a row, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners has hired lobbyists to represent the county’s interests in the state legislature.
On Friday, the board’s members agreed that one of the firm’s first tasks would be to persuade members of the N.C. General Assembly to repeal the tolls that are scheduled to be imposed on the Pamlico and Neuse River ferries later this spring.
“I’m willing to try it this year to get some relief for those employees that commute across the river,” said Commissioner Ed Booth.
At a day-long retreat at the N.C. Estuarium, the commissioners voted unanimously to hire Joe McClees and Susan Henri McClees with McClees Consulting Inc., of Oriental, for a fee of $30,000 to represent Beaufort County before the state legislature through December.
That fee is double what the county paid McClees Consulting to represent its interests in 2011.
In addition to the fee, the contract with McClees also calls for the county to pay expenses incurred on its behalf with the exception of fees paid to the N.C. Secretary of State to register McClees and others in the firm as lobbyists.
Among the past and current clients of McClees Consulting are the Humane Society of the United States, National Rifle Association, N.C. Agribusiness Council Inc., N.C. Fisheries Association Inc., N.C. Portable Toilet Group, N.C. Sporting Dog Association and the Smokeless Tobacco Council Inc., according to information provided by the firm.
McClees was instrumental in helping Beaufort County secure funds from lottery proceeds and funds for its volunteer fire departments, the commissioners were told.
“We’re going to have a lot of issues coming up in Raleigh,” said Commissioner Stan Deatherage. “There’s going to be less money available and we’re going to have to do all we can to get our fair share.”
Support in the legislature is beginning to wane for the plan to impose tolls for the first time beginning April 1 on the state’s river ferries, the commissioners were told.
Together the Pamlico and Neuse river ferries carry about 534,841 people — many of whom use the ferries to commute to work at Potash Corp Aurora and Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station.
Under a mandate from the Republican-controlled state legislature, DOT has considered a range of pricing options in response to lawmakers’ call for the department to generate $5 million in annual revenue from ferry tolls.
Within that range is the possibility that average riders on the Aurora-Bayview ferry could see charges of $10 to $12 per trip — or up to $480 per month for people who ride the local ferry every day, as some do.
These riders could save money by purchasing commuter passes, but speakers at a recent public meeting on the issue in Beaufort County also saw that choice as cost-prohibitive.
DOT is expected to announce new toll rates by the end of the month.
In addition to a repeal of the ferry tolls, the county could seek help from McClees if county leaders decide to refinance the debt incurred by the county’s water districts, the commissioners were told.