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St. Petersburg: Local law to favor local workers draws big crowd at City Hall

ST. PETERSBURG — In an unusual display of public interest, more than 120 residents packed a City Hall committee room on Thursday morning to show their support for a law that would force construction firms to hire local workers on big public projects.

The proposal, still in the early stages, would require contractors and subcontractors to hire Pinellas County workers to perform at least 50 percent of work hours on city projects worth $2 million or more.

Council members Karl Nurse, Wengay Newton and Steve Kornell voted to send the proposal for a full vote before the council next Thursday. Jim Kennedy voted no.

With construction jobs in slim demand, the committee believes the ordinance would reduce unemployment and create training and apprenticeship programs for minority and unskilled workers.

"It's important for us as leaders to create opportunities for workers," Newton said.

Before the proposal can become law, the council will have to approve spending $150,000 to study construction industry hiring practices. The ordinance would not take effect until the study is completed.

Supporters believe the proposal will help residents land jobs on projects like the new $40 million police headquarters and the $50 million Pier project, known as the Lens.

Even though the public couldn't speak at Thursday's meeting, activists from Awake Pinellas and FAST packed the room and applauded after the measure passed.

Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter, said local residents should get the first chance to earn wages on expensive projects supported by tax dollars.

"I am glad it passed," he said. "Let's talk about tax dollars staying here. "

The law would exempt firms outside of Florida if they brought workers from other states to complete entire projects.

The proposal would apply if they hired Florida workers.

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

Critics argue that ordinance reduces competition, produces lower-quality work and drives up prices.

The Associated Builders and Contractors threatened to sue the city if the ordinance is enacted.

Mayor Bill Foster said he supports the study, but fears the ordinance might hinder some projects because of the added requirements.

He also worries about other municipalities creating ordinances to block Pinellas workers.

Several council members also questioned the wisdom of spending $150,000 on a study, money that could be wasted if findings show local workers already are being hired on public projects.