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St. Petersburg moves ahead with preference for local construction contractors

Published May 25, 2012

The economy is bad, unemployment is high and almost one in seven people in the construction industry nationwide is out of work.

St. Petersburg leaders want to help local residents get back to work by making sure more of the money the city spends on construction projects stays in the community.

The city is moving forward with a law that would require its contractors to hire local residents first.

"They get work. They get money. They go to restaurants, which creates jobs. They go to the movies, which creates jobs," City Council member Wengay Newton said. "It's a chain reaction."

Council members all agreed that they want to give residents an advantage and help the local job market during a committee meeting Thursday.

They just can't decide how.

The sticking points: How big does a project have to be for a "hire local" requirement to kick in? What percentage of local residents should contractors be required to hire? How will workers prove their residency? What will count as local?

The city already has a program that gives preference to small businesses in Hillsborough, Manatee, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

The new law could conflict with this program, said Louis Moore, the director of the city's purchasing and materials management department.

Many council members suggested defining local as the same five counties already used by the small-business program to avoid potential lawsuits.

However, Newton said money from that program often goes to Hillsborough County and he would like "local" to apply only to Pinellas County residents.

"I think that's watering it down," he said.

The biggest concern involved exposing the city to legal risk.

The city could be sued for discrimination, Assistant City Attorney Jeannine Williams said, if it can't prove that non-residents cause local residents to be unemployed.

According to the city, St. Petersburg's unemployment rate is 8.5 percent.

About a dozen people came to listen to city leaders discuss the issue Thursday and to represent Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, an interfaith social justice group composed of 38 houses of worship in Pinellas County.

In a letter to council members, FAST made three suggestions: The law should apply to all contracts worth $2 million or more, it should require at least 50 percent of the people hired to be Pinellas County residents and 25 percent or more should come from "hard-to-hire" unemployed people who may be ex-offenders.

After the meeting, Rabbi Michael Torop, co-chair of the FAST jobs committee, expressed mixed feelings.

He said FAST was encouraged that council members overwhelmingly supported moving the law forward and are frustrated that the staff seems to be dragging its feet.

Newton said city staff will gather information and studies related to the law, refine it and present it again in two months.

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Alli Langley can be reached at alangley@tampabay.com.


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