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Tampa City Council to seek cheapest vendors, not local ones

TAMPA — The City Council made it clear Thursday what it thinks about ordinances that give local businesses a leg up on government contracts.

Council members don't want them anywhere in Florida. With a 5-2 vote, the council agreed to back an effort by a businesses association to pass a state law banning the local ordinances.

"It goes back to simple high school or college economics. We are talking about protectionism," said council member John Dingfelder, before making the motion for the resolution.

For over a year, council member Mary Mulhern has been pushing for a city ordinance that would favor regional businesses.

Mayor Pam Iorio, though, has fought the concept, with her staff producing data showing that the city already awards most of its contracts to regional businesses and arguing that such ordinances limit competition and increase the cost to taxpayers.

Purchasing director Greg Spearman told the council that 83 percent of the dollar value of construction prime contracts already goes to businesses in the five-county Tampa Bay area. For goods and services, it's 54 percent.

Mulhern questioned the figures, suggesting they were skewed to bolster Iorio's stance.

"It's been clear since I initiated these discussions over a year ago that the administration doesn't want to do this," she said.

Indeed, even as the Tampa City Council discussed the issue, Iorio was voicing her opinion at a meeting of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which oversees Tampa International Airport. Iorio is a member of the Aviation Authority board.

Giving local companies a leg up would limit the pool of bidders and potentially drive up prices, she said. And a local preference policy would send a message that the Tampa Bay area isn't friendly to out-of-town business that may relocate, she said.

"It is a mistake to restrict ourselves (to vendors) in a parochial way," Iorio said. "It's in our best interests to be perceived as part of the global economy."

Back at the City Council, a number of business leaders spoke out against local preference ordinances, which have been passed by Sarasota, Gainesville and some Florida counties.

John Cammack, executive vice president of Skanska, whose company has a $50 million contract to build the Tampa Museum of Art, said such ordinances create unfair competition by giving local businesses a second chance to bid on contracts after learning the lowest bid offered.

"That's not healthy in the industry," he said.

Steve Cona, president of Associated Builders and Contractors, said local preference ordinances come up when the economy is in a down slide, but don't work.

"You're building walls if you do pass something like this," he said. If all regions have such ordinances, it will be hard for businesses to win contracts outside their own geographic areas, he said, noting that some jurisdictions penalize businesses that have a local preference rule in their home region.

His organization is the one working on a state law to prohibit all the ordinances.

Dingfelder suggested backing that drive. "If everybody took these down, we'd be back to the level playing field," he said. "The free market works."

Mulhern and council member Linda Saul-Sena voted against the measure.

Mulhern said the point of Thursday's workshop was to talk about ways to help local businesses. "To jump to the other side and support going to the state level and opposing them, I find that to be a very surprising motion," she said.

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.

Tampa City Council to seek cheapest vendors, not local ones 11/12/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 7:59am]
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