BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — In an April 14 meeting, the Birmingham Water Works Board voted to approve funding for two additional lobbyists, an annual cost of $276,000.
The roughly quarter-million dollar investment will help the board secure additional state and federally funded dollars, according to the board general manager, Michael Johnson.
The additional lobbyists are a part of the Board’s 2021 government affairs strategy. The Board already has a lobbyist firm on its payroll, the Jones Group, which it pays $120,000 annually.
The strategic plan has a goal of more than $850 million. The funds would go towards replacing water lines, improving meters and other items.
Johnson said spending the money on lobbyists is worth it.
“This is $396,000,” he said. “I’ll reiterate to you, we don’t want to miss an opportunity.”
The additional lobbyists hired, Pat Lynch and Earl Hilliard will be paid $120,000 and $156,000, respectively.
It’s a 230% increase in spending on lobbyists annually. One of the lobbyist now on BWWB’s payroll, former congressman Earl Hilliard, was hired to advocate on a federal level. He has not registered with the U.S. Senate or House Office of the Clerk.
CBS 42’s Malique Rankin asked Johnson why he would hire a lobbyist that isn’t registered to do his job.
“It’s my understanding that they are registered, but that’s not something that we audited.”
When asked why the lobbyists weren’t properly vetted for their roles, Johnson said they trusted the lobbyists were prepared to do their jobs.
“Yes, it would be important to know that, but, we are dealing with professionals here and they know what their roles are,” he said.
Pat Lynch, hired to lobby for the 5-county area the waterworks served, registered with the Alabama Ethics Commission on February 16, two months before the vote for her job was approved.
The Jones group represents several entities in Alabama and registered every year for the last 12 years with the Alabama Ethics Commission.
All of this comes two weeks after J.D. Power’s Water Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction survey. Birmingham Water Works ranked last.
Johnson said oftentimes when customers call with a complaint or concern, it is because they don’t understand their billing, not because the billing is incorrect.
“We provide really good service to a lot of people,” said Johnson. “And they tell us, ‘We’re not sure how J.D. Power surveys… and so… we don’t know how they do it.'”
Johnson said the money spent on lobbyists is a small amount when looking at the $200 million budget as a whole.
When asked if there was specific and tangible criteria to check if the lobbyist were worth their salaries, Johnson replied no.