Small towns vie for their part of the stimulus

WASHINGTON — R. Lee Myers has been mayor of Matthews, N.C., for 18 years now, and never thought the town of 26,000 would need a lobbyist.

That was before $800 billion or more of economic stimulus began sloshing around Washington without any certain avenue for bringing a piece of it back home. With a federal highway bill and other appropriations also at stake, Myers said he and other town leaders decided to get help.

So last month, the community set aside $5,000 a month for some guidance and hired a federal lobbyist. Matthews also is going to start lobbying in Raleigh for the first time because word is the state is going to be deciding how some of that federal stimulus money gets doled out.

"There's going to be a significant opportunity for funding of local projects," said Myers, who also wants help with the annual appropriations bill and the highway bill. "Much of this has the potential of going directly to local governments. There are a lot of new people and faces in Washington and we are not in the position to know how to navigate through the government structure in Washington, D.C."

Matthews is not alone. Other communities are hiring lobbyists to help them get a share of the legislation that supporters say will jump-start the economy with dollars for highway and water projects, school programs and Medicaid spending.

Forsyth County, N.C., signed on last month with the same lobbying firm, The Ferguson Group, which represents Concord, Fayetteville, High Point and now Matthews, among many others.

A partner in the lobbying firm, Jennifer Imo, said that because the stimulus bill doesn't have specific earmarks, one of the ways she helps communities is by informing them which programs will require competitive grant applications, which will require applications to state administering agencies, and which have "use it or lose it" deadlines.

"How are they to know all of that unless they are following it as closely as we are?" she said. "We are basically their staff in Washington that's monitoring very closely the stimulus process and making sure that they can take advantage of all the opportunities that will be afforded to communities like Matthews in the final package."

Myers said he and the town manager will be traveling to Washington on Wednesday to tell lawmakers why Matthews deserves federal money.

The town's wish list for the stimulus bill includes $750,000 for intersection improvements at NC 51 at Fullwood Drive and another $250,000 for the intersection at Monroe Road; $525,000 for work on North Trade Street; and $500,000 for Buckley Way Street.

Funds it hopes to acquire in other federal legislation, requests that it approved at its board of commissioners meeting Monday night, include $4 million for an extension project for McKee Road and $204,000 for digital in-car cameras for its police department.

Myers said Washington's emphasis on funneling money back to local communities wasn't something Matthews could afford to pass up.

"It was too important for us to try to do it on our own," he said. "It is way too big."

"For once we have the opportunity here for funding to come back to the local area," Myers added. "We're going to roll up our sleeves and make our case and get to work."