TAMPA — Local business owners urged the City Council on Thursday to develop a policy that would favor area businesses when awarding city contracts.
"No one is saying local only. We're saying local first," said Carla Jimenez, owner of the independent book store Inkwood Books.
The concept of giving preference to local vendors was first proposed by council member Mary Mulhern last year. In the current economic crisis, she said, it is particularly important for the city to spend its money close to home.
"We have a local responsibility to find ways to save jobs in Tampa," she said.
Council members debated the issue after hearing a report from city purchasing director Greg Spearman, who warned that giving preference to local vendors could reduce competition, drive up costs and prompt surrounding governments to institute similar policies that would keep local businesses from doing work in other locations.
Several Florida cities and counties — including Hollywood, Lakeland and Broward County — have such policies. Generally, they allow local businesses to win contracts even if they cost a little more than contracts with companies based outside the region.
Spearman said Tampa already awards 84 percent of about $200 million in contracts to businesses in the five-county area surrounding Tampa, implying that the city spends plenty of money locally.
Those contracts, though, include national companies with Tampa Bay area offices.
Mulhern said maybe the definition of a local business needs to change to include only those headquartered here. And she wants to see more data to illustrate the downside of giving preferences to those companies.
"There's a growing consensus among economists, liberal and conservative, that local is going to save us," she said.
Council member John Dingfelder said awarding Tampa's contracts to nearby businesses would be akin to creating a home-grown economic stimulus package.
Jimenez, who acknowledged that as a bookstore owner she wouldn't benefit from such a policy, cited studies showing the benefits of spending locally.
She said that for every dollar spent at a local business, about 45 cents stays in the local economy, while the same dollar spent in a national chain keeps only about 13 cents local.
By a vote of 6-1, the council directed Spearman to get together with advocates of a local vendor preference policy and report back in May with recommendations.
Council member Charlie Miranda cast the dissenting vote, saying the issue warranted no further discussion. He argued that such a preference would mean contracts would not always go to the lowest bidder.
"It is not in the best interest of the general taxpayers of this city to do this," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.