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Associated Builders and Contractors considers legal challenge of St. Pete disadvantaged worker ordinance

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A coalition of building contractors isn’t taking St. Pete City Council’s decision to approve a measure mandating companies completing city projects to reserve at least 10 percent of their man-hours for disadvantaged workers.

Steve Cona of the local Associated Builders and Contractors said the group is looking at all possible ways to combat the new ordinance.

“We have battled St. Pete for the last four years as they have tried to implement these mandates and now they have,” Cona said during a radio interview with this reporter on WMNF Community Radio.

The ordinance applies to city projects budgeted for $2 million or more. A disadvantaged worker is someone with a past criminal record and some stint on public assistance during the preceding 12 months.

The newly passed ordinance builds on another previously passed by council that also requires companies contracted by the city to build projects over $2 million to allocate 10 percent of their workforce to people participating in apprenticeship programs.

Cona said the combined ordinance means St. Pete controls 20 percent of contractors’ workforce on large city projects. Now that both ordinances are approved, Cona warns the city could face some unintended consequences.

“These projects will be less competitively bid,” he said.

Cona said with an influx in construction around the Tampa Bay area, contractors are being picky about what they bid on. This ordinance could steer them away from city projects.

And during City Council’s meeting Thursday they addressed that exact concern. Supporters asked the city to give the program at least a year. To address that concern, council approved an amendment to the ordinance that requires city staff to evaluate the program after a year to see if there have been any adverse effects. They’ll do that by looking at the number of bids received on large projects.

Supporters hope the program will create jobs for people who have a hard time finding jobs because they have a criminal record. They argue putting those people back to work will be a boost to individuals and families in poor neighborhoods.

But Cona argues construction jobs already give chances to people with troubled pasts.

“I think the const industry already does a great job in providing second chances,” he said.

He added the industry is the top provider of apprenticeship training in the state.

But the city gave builders and contractors a chance to prove that. They implemented an incentive program City Council members argued companies weren’t using.

“I think the sample size is extremely small,” Cona said. “There have not been a lot of big-ticket construction items.”

What he means is, smaller projects are harder to meet the city’s threshold of “disadvantaged workers.” He argues the three big projects coming up in St. Pete — the Pier, police headquarters and a water treatment plant — would be a good place to demonstrate that companies can and will take advantage of the city’s incentive program.

But that option is no longer on the table and the coalition of builders and contractors is prepared for a fight. Cona said the group is considering reviving efforts to lobby state lawmakers to pass legislation next year that would prohibit local governments from passing similar ordinances. That measure was taken up this session and seemed to have some support, but it got left on the table.

A statewide measure would also not solve what’s already happened in St. Pete.

“We also haven’t ruled out the possibility of seeking the Attorney General’s opinions,” Cona said, hinting at a legal challenge. “We also haven’t ruled out the possibility of saying that this type of ordinance is kind of unconstitutional considering that you’re singling out one industry over another and setting wage and hiring requirements for an industry and not doing it for others.

Cona said the group just wants to control its own workforce and not be mandated by elected officials.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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