Birmingham Water Works Board triples what it pays lobbyists

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 1:00 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The Birmingham Water Works Board BWWB) voted in April to triple both the number of lobbying firms it uses, and how much its paying for lobbying services, and in the process hired two lobbyists who aren’t registered to lobby with the clerks of the U.S. House or Senate, and only one is registered to lobby with the Alabama Ethics Commission. BWWB has used Montgomery-based lobbyists The Jones Group for the last couple of years, paying them $90,000 a year to be the utility’s voice in the state capitol. That’s now bumped up to $10,000 a month, then on April 14, the board approved hiring two more lobbyists in one meeting - more than tripling what the utility pays for lobbying.

BWWB General Manager Michael Johnson calls this an effort to get more outside money to help the utility meet a new strategic plan that includes more than $700 million in capital project needs.

The board hired former Birmingham Budweiser executive Pat Lynch at $10,000 a month, though Lynch hasn’t filed a lobbying report with the state ethics commission since 2016, until registering shortly before the board hired him.

“The value that’s seen there is in communicating what we’re doing at our utility and helping us get our message out on things that we’re doing,” Johnson explains.

Asked if the board should already be communicating effectively with its five-county service area given that all of those areas appoint a member to the board, Johnson said “The one thing that I see as an advantage is for us to be proactive in what we communicate, not reactive.”

In that same April 14 meeting, the waterworks also hired former Congressman Earl Hilliard at $13,000 a month. Johnson says that’s to help his utility at the federal level, but according to online records, Hilliard isn’t registered as a lobbyist with either the U.S. House or Senate. Johnson says he believes Hilliard is working with a registered lobbyist in Washington D.C.

“Well he has an agreement with us on certain things, and we look to hold him to that agreement,” Johnson says. “Looking for him to produce and help us in those areas and he’ll produce a report on what he’s doing in those areas and be evaluated on what he’s doing for us. We’re looking for him to provide those services through his firm, and if for some reason we’re not getting what we need, then we’ll discontinue that agreement.”

“I thought we were already represented in Washington,” says BWWB board member Butch Burbage, referring to two national associations of municipal water companies with lobbying presences in D.C. “And come to find out in the reports we receive from the Hilliard group, they’re more involved in what’s going on with the local area like the city of Birmingham, Jefferson County. I’m not quite sure why we have them there.”

Burbage voted against all three contracts.

“Is it the best use of that particular money?” He asks. “I think there is some money that needed to be spent in order to get representation in different areas, I’m just not so sure we need the three of them.”

This comes as J.D. Power just last week released its annual survey of utility customers, and found Birmingham water works was the lowest rated for customer satisfaction among similar size utilities across the southeast.

This J.D. Power utility customer satisfaction survey found BWWB last among midsize water...
This J.D. Power utility customer satisfaction survey found BWWB last among midsize water companies in the south.(J.D. Power)

“That’s not a great response, the customers clearly have some concerns, and dissatisfaction,” warns J.D. Power analyst Andrew Heath, who helped compile the survey.

How can the waterworks improve that score?

“Are they spending our money in a good way, are they improving the infrastructure? If the utility does a good job telling us how they’re using that money, and then making sure we understand we’re investing in the future not just servicing debt and all that other stuff, that is the best thing they can do,” advises Heath.

“If we can get additional capital dollars, this will more than pay for itself,” says Johnson of the new lobbying contracts. “And these are not contracts that will go forever. We are in unprecedented times, and we don’t want to miss out on an opportunity.”

We reached out to all three lobbying firms for comment, but none have returned our requests to speak with them. We did ask the board’s Vice Chairman Dr. George Munchus why he supported the new contracts, and he sent this statement:

“The capital infrastructure needs of the BWW are in excess of $700 million dollars and additional resources are needed beyond what we ratepayers pay each month for great, clean water.

Partnerships with the city and county and state and federal and private sectors are critical as they have similar capital project needs. All utilities must invest in these resourced sort of efforts.

I think Alabama Power contracts with 11 such outside firms and SPIRE (Alabama Gas) contracts with six such outside firms? Many of these utilities also have in-house people that do such as well.

Even the holding company that owns WBRC has such a contract function in American business.”

WBRC found multiple firms who’ve registered with the Alabama Ethics Commission as lobbyists who work on behalf of Alabama Power, we found one who registered as a Spire lobbyist.

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