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St. Petersburg considers $150,000 study on local hiring practices

ST. PETERSBURG — As the city explores a law that would require hiring local workers to build expensive public projects, staffers asked a California firm if it could study the hiring practices of local construction companies.

The cost: $150,000.

Such a study would form the basis of a proposed city law that would force construction firms to hire Pinellas County residents on taxpayer-funded projects priced at $2 million or more.

It also would be at least the third city-commissioned study this year; the first two of which yielded no policy changes. Several council members said they have concerns about spending money on another study that might not produce meaningful results.

Earlier this year, the city spent $200,000 to create the so-called fire readiness fee, which the council ultimately rejected. The city also spent $50,000 on an outside review of two city audits completed after a costly impact-fee miscalculation cost taxpayers $219,000. The review found no wrongdoing.

No overall figure is available on how much St. Petersburg spends yearly on consultants or studies. The city does not have a code to track studies or consultants in its accounting system.

The City Council will vote today whether to approve the local hiring-preference law while simultaneously authorizing staffers to seek bids for the hiring study. Companies, such as the California firm that has conducted a similar study there, would have to apply for the work. The law, if passed, would not take effect until the study's completion.

"We certainly don't need to spend $150,000," said council member Charlie Gerdes. "We need to better define what this study is intended to do."

He also thinks researchers at local colleges could perform the study for less.

Mayor Bill Foster believes that study is needed for the local hiring law to be effective. But he is suspicious about what the study might produce.

"If I had a crystal ball, a disparity study will indicate a disparity study isn't needed," Foster said.

In a letter to Foster, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce opposed the study because of recent budget woes.

The hiring law has been talked about for months and is being pushed by Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, an interfaith social justice group made up of 38 houses of worship in Pinellas County.

The law's supporters believe it will help disadvantaged and minority residents land jobs on projects like the new $40 million police headquarters and the $50 million Pier project, known as the Lens.

They also want to make sure money the city spends on construction projects stays in the community because local residents shop in the area. To be eligible, workers must live in Pinellas County for at least six months before the start of a project and maintain the residence until the work is completed.

Contractors and subcontractors also would be required to make good-faith efforts to use apprentices and disadvantaged workers for at least 20 percent of work hours.

Rabbi Michael Torop, co-chair of the FAST jobs committee, said a lawyer with Partnership for Working Families plans to inform city attorneys on how to write the law without doing the study.

Even if that plan fails, Torop thinks a study could be done for $50,000 instead of $150,000.

"That would make it much more palatable," he said.

Council member Karl Nurse supports the hiring law, but wants to find a way to avoid the study. He stressed that such a law could help residents.

"It's a philosophical thing," he said. "Do you want the city to use its economic power to reduce poverty and unemployment?"

Critics argue that law would reduce competition, produce lower-quality work and drive up prices. The Associated Builders and Contractors threatened to sue the city if the law is enacted.

Gerdes likes the law, but fears the costs from legal challenges.

At first, he prefers the law to be only "aspirational" in order to define project hiring goals. Once progress is measured, he said, requirements could be added.

He also doesn't see how city staffers can administer the hiring program and wonders whether the work could be handed to WorkNet Pinellas or Job Corps.

He added: "We need somebody already in the business."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg considers $150,000 study on local hiring practices 11/18/12 [Last modified: Sunday, November 18, 2012 10:27pm]
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