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LOCAL HIRING PLAN A LOSER

It is tempting, in tough economic times, to try to close ranks and take care of your own - particularly when there is a public outpouring of support for such an idea. But it's never that simple. A proposed ordinance in St. Petersburg mandating that any future capital projects costing $2 million or more hire city residents to perform at least 50 percent of the work is a recipe for cronyism, higher taxpayer costs and increased bureaucracy. And the fact the city is considering wasting $150,000 to hire a consultant before enacting the ordinance is just further evidence that this bad idea needs to die.

The proposed ordinance has been discussed off and on for months, backed by council members looking to ensure that a significant amount of city money slated for big-ticket items such as a new $50 million Pier and $40 million police headquarters would flow into St. Petersburg residents' pockets. The idea got a formal boost last week when 120 residents, organized by Awake Pinellas and the faith-based FAST group, showed up in support at a council committee meeting. Four council members, voting 3-1, sent the measure to the full council for a hearing as early as next week.

Under the plan, any company planning to hire Florida workers to complete a job would be required to ensure that 50 percent of hours were worked by individuals who had lived in St. Petersburg for at least six months. Contractors would also be encouraged to set aside another 20 percent of work for apprentices and disadvantaged workers.

It's hard to imagine exactly how this would be enforced, with city bureaucrats - besides overseeing a construction project - now also charged with checking the residency status of individual workers. And Mayor Bill Foster is right to worry about the chilling effect such a scheme might have on St. Petersburg residents' ability to get jobs outside the city, from Clearwater to neighboring counties.

Also unknown: Just how much this requirement might affect a project's bottom line. Contractors could end up delaying construction as they seek out eligible employees, and it's no wonder that the Associated Builders and Contractors have already threatened to sue if the ordinance is enacted. But an even bigger threat to taxpayers' wallet is an onerous process that discourages contractors from bidding at all on public projects, diminishing the impact of competitive bidding and increasing the odds of higher costs. It's the reason governments from Tampa to Pasco County have rejected this kind of scheme already.

The council's answer to all that? Hiring a consultant, at an estimated cost of $150,000, to survey the construction industry's hiring practices before the ordinance would take effect. In other words, throw more taxpayer money after an ill-conceived idea.

St. Petersburg already has a program aimed at making local hires via the city's small business program, though it rightly defines local as the Tampa Bay region - not just the city proper. At least 8 percent of the city's budget in 2010-11 was spent with just such businesses.

It's understandable that council members want to help constituents find work, but a plan that undermines government efficiency, regional cooperation and wastes another $150,000 on a consultant is just a bad idea.

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