ST. PETERSBURG — Before the shovels hit the dirt for two of the biggest construction projects in city history, the City Council wants to make sure that local workers and companies benefit first.
The council has asked the staff to draft an ordinance that would require contractors to hire more locals to build the new Pier and the new police headquarters.
"If you look forward to the next 10 years," council member Karl Nurse said, "I don't foresee any projects as big as the ones we're talking about."
But the council discovered something during its discussion about sharing the wealth for the upcoming $100 million in construction projects: The council learned that St. Petersburg already seeks to make local hires via the city's small-business program.
"In my estimation we have been doing this ... all along," said Louis Moore, director of the city's purchasing and materials management department.
The program paid almost $11 million to local and minority vendors for construction, engineering and architectural work and goods and services last fiscal year, Moore said.
That was 8 percent of the city's $110 million budget last fiscal year, a record for the program that was implemented in 2007. Altogether the program has paid nearly $46 million to local businesses.
The program gives preference to local vendors, but it counts the Tampa Bay region as local. The companies that participate in the program are from Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.
"We didn't want to punish anyone who works in St. Petersburg but lives in Hillsborough County," Public Works Administrator Mike Connors said.
But now the City Council wants to take the program one step further by creating greater incentives for businesses to hire St. Petersburg residents when work begins on the two construction projects.
The goal of the program is to direct some of those big contracts to help the locally unemployed and underemployed. St. Petersburg's unemployment rate is 10.1 percent, according to the city. That's higher than the averages for the state, nation and Tampa Bay area.
A priority hiring ordinance, the council hopes, could dent that double-digit unemployment by requiring companies to hire "local job candidates" and install "apprenticeship" programs.
Anyone who listed St. Petersburg as his or her residence for three months before the start of the project would qualify. The council even talked about encouraging the hiring of Safe Harbor homeless shelter residents.
The next step is for the city staff to draft a model ordinance based on the only other program like it in the country: San Francisco's local-hire ordinance.
Last year San Francisco approved a local-hire law that by 2017 would require businesses working on city projects to hire 50 percent of their workers locally. That would apply to any public works project valued at $400,000 or more.
Critics, though, say the San Francisco plan is expensive to implement and confusing when it comes to classifying who is a local worker, and that there may be some cheating going on with the residency of certain workers.
But Nurse, who asked the city staff to explore the idea during a Jan. 26 workshop, said it's worth getting some kind of program going before bids start going out.
"My experience with the city is that the hardest thing is to get something started," he said. "If it starts off modestly, but we get started more quickly, I would be okay with that."
But Nurse doesn't want the definition of a local worker to be too narrowly defined. He gave an example of a roofer he hired recently: The company was from Largo, but the crew chief and workers were from St. Petersburg.
"There aren't many businesses where all their employees live in one city," he said.
Council member Steve Kornell also supported the idea but said he doesn't want it to become too cumbersome. "It needs to be implemented in a way that doesn't create reams and reams of paperwork," he said.
Tampa Bay's municipalities have small-business programs like St. Petersburg's.
Council chairwoman Leslie Curran feared what would happen to St. Petersburg workers if neighboring cities adopted their own local hiring ordinances, too.
"Every time we have this conversation, it sounds good," she said. "But if our neighboring communities do the same thing, then that means anyone who lives here cannot participate (over there)."