By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — That Niagara Falls Water Board has been lobbying Albany on natural gas drilling, water treatment and capital grants for the last three years.
The board has paid e3communications, a public relations and lobbying firm based in Buffalo, $160,000 since the beginning of 2009 to work with state lawmakers in Albany, according to lobbyist registration filings submitted to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a state entity that oversees lobbying activities.
The company also had a contract to do public relations work for the board at a rate of $2,000 a month. All contracts were awarded through an open bidding process, according to documents provided to the Gazette by the board.
The board voted to
discontinue its relationship with e3communications in May.
Earl Wells, owner of the firm, was one of the lobbyists working in Albany on behalf of the water board. He said his work helped the board stay informed on funding opportunities and laws that would have an impact on the utility’s operations or budget.
Paul Drof, the executive director of the water board, said the company also informed on changes in laws and state policies on issues related to the utility — like natural gas drilling and the treatment of wastewater from the process.
“They provide us with funding opportunities,” Drof said. “ They provide us with an inroad with the government and make us aware of changes in legislation that may affect us and how we do our business.”
Drof said the company also sent information in the opposite direction, letting lawmakers know how changes in legislation might effect the utility’s bottom line.
“If we have to pay more or do more testing it’s reflected in the rates that we have to give to our users,” Drof said.
The firm ultimately pulled in and saved the utility much more money than it was paid by securing government grants and providing information that led to cost-saving decisions, Drof said.
For example, the board was awarded $5.4 million in federal money — part of the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009 — for desperately needed infrastructure improvements.
Rick Roll, the utility’s director of technical and regulatory services, said the money funded about half of the water board’s $11 million North Gorge Interceptor project. The utility repaired the crumbling underground tunnel that runs under the Robert Moses Parkway to the wastewater treatment plant as a result.
“If we wouldn’t have gotten that infusion of money, we might still be waiting on that one,” he said.
Water Board Chairman Ted Janese said the company did great work for the board — both in its public relations and lobbying roles — but, with the utility’s budget issues and no end to the natural gas drilling debate in sight, it was no longer fiscally responsible to continue on with the contracts.
The board would consider hiring an outside firm for public relations and lobbying work again if the finances of the utility improve but, for now, duties like grant writing and distributing information to the press will be handled internally, Janese said.
“It’s not something that’s a closed door forever,” he said. “It’s based on the budget at this time.”