Ferguson Group works to help city move forward
Posted @ Monday, January 13, 2014
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WASHINGTON – As federal lobbyists go, Fort Wayne's seem low-key and laid-back.
They don't hang out on Capitol Hill. Their offices aren't along K Street. They are more likely to be consulting with engineering officials than with congressmen.
"Our part of the lobbying business is not like the Georgetown cocktail party lobbying," William Ferguson Jr. said. "It is really understanding the dynamics of stormwater. Understanding transportation issues. Understanding railway issues.
"We're not personalities like a lot of lobbyists are. Our specialty is local government," he said.
Ferguson is chairman and founder of The Ferguson Group, a consulting firm whose clients include about 130 municipal governments, including Cincinnati and Lansing, Mich.
Fort Wayne hired the firm this year for $90,000 a year.
Mayor Tom Henry's administration counts on The Ferguson Group "to navigate through some of the red tape among agencies and try to help them actually talk to each other on various issues that are affecting the city," said Stephanie Crandall, the city's business and legislative liaison.
"Sometimes the agencies don't always talk to each other to know what might be going on, either parallel or in opposition to the guidance that they might give local government," she said.
Crandall took part in a recent conference call conducted from Ferguson's office in Washington. Along with Karl Kalbacher, The Ferguson Group's director of grant services, they discussed local projects the lobbying firm is working on, including:
- Converting the McMillen ice rink into a community center. The Ferguson Group is seeking federal grant money to help fund the conversion and operation of the center.
- Trying to acquire, at no cost, the former Franklin school from the General Services Administration. The building would be demolished and the property turned into a park.
- Relieving traffic congestion at the South Anthony Boulevard railroad crossing with a grade separation, such as an underpass for automobile lanes, which would be financed by federal funds.
- Advocating for legislation sponsored by Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from ordering the removal of all trees and bushes from earthen flood barriers across the nation.
Ferguson said Stutzman's amendment to the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, approved by the House in a nearly unanimous vote in October, would keep Fort Wayne from having to spend $25 million to tear out vegetation and rebuild its 10-mile levee system along the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers.
In other cases, The Ferguson Group is helping the city prepare to apply for federal funds.
"Sometimes projects aren't ready for that competitive grant," Kalbacher said, mentioning the South Anthony Boulevard grade separation. "They need to get to the next stage.
"Preping these sites and working together … to get us to that point is critical," he said.
'All kinds of stuff'
Ferguson and Kalbacher plan to travel to Fort Wayne this month to meet with officials of the departments they represent: community development, public works, utilities and parks.
The lobbyists talk twice a month by phone with city personnel.
"We need to know the projects," Ferguson said.
Kalbacher said municipal governments "are busy doing all kinds of stuff: picking up the garbage, policing the streets, making sure the sewers are cleaned out. Their focus shouldn't be on Washington, D.C. We can help them in that regard."
The Fort Wayne government for many years had retained B&D Consulting Inc. as its lobbyist.
City spokesman John Perlich said in an email that the Hagerstown, Md., company "provided great service to the city in meeting our legislative lobbying goals (and) lobbying members of Congress."
But as municipal lobbying efforts shifted from Congress to executive-branch agencies, "we found that The Ferguson Group offered a level of expertise and regulatory experience that was in line with our federal advocacy needs," Perlich said.
That shift coincided with Congress' decision to eliminate earmarks, the process of authorizing federal funds to projects in lawmakers' home states or districts.
"We do as much or more grant work than we did in the earmark era," Ferguson said. "There's more money in grants than there was in earmarks."
William Ferguson has been a lobbyist since the mid-1970s and founded his namesake firm in 1982. It is in an office building along Connecticut Avenue Northwest, across the street from the historic Mayflower Hotel and a couple blocks north of K Street, a hotbed of lobbying firms.
Ferguson arrived in town from Massachusetts to work for Rep. Paul Tsongas, a Bay State Democrat who was newly elected to House and would serve later in the Senate.
"I was a hippie when I came to Washington. I had a ponytail, and I didn't own a suit," Ferguson recalled. He joined the National Center for Municipal Development. His first client, the city of Englewood, Calif., remains with him.
The Ferguson Group has received lobbying income of $5.2 million this year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, the center lists 11 firms that have earned at least $10 million this year, topped by Patton Boggs' nearly $30.2 million.
In addition to municipal governments, clients of The Ferguson Group have included the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, California State University and the Magic Johnson Foundation, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm has more than 20 staff members.
Various pages of The Ferguson Group's website list the firm's accomplishments: $34 million in transportation projects for King County, Wash., and grants of $5.6 million for Dubuque, Iowa, and $3.8 million for Wyandotte, Mich.
Kalbacher has been with The Ferguson Group for about a year. A geologist, he previously worked in environmental and economic development positions for governments in Delaware and Maryland and is a former city councilman.
"My mindset is local government, it's not lobbying," Kalbacher said. "My view of lobbying is providing information and advice, counsel. … Local government at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day (is) about providing services."
The Ferguson Group's efforts are "a way of affecting the well-being of people around the country," Ferguson said.
"I really feel like I am working for the citizens of Fort Wayne," he added.