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Bridgeport Ordinance urges local hiring

September 18, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — The City Council has passed an ordinance encouraging developers who receive subsidies — tax incentives, breaks on the purchase price of public property — to prioritize local hiring.

But one prominent businessman urged the city to do a better job expanding the skilled labor pool, while a brand-new councilman denounced language in the ordinance that would give ex-felons first dibs on construction job openings.

“You want to be forgiven, go to church,” Councilman Michael DeFilippo, one of two “no” votes, said in a brief interview afterward.

DeFilippo unsuccessfully tried Monday to table the vote and have the ordinance sent back to committee. Councilwoman AmyMarie Vizzo-Paniccia also voted no.

The hiring proposal, spearheaded by Councilman Ernie Newton, asks developers partnering on projects with the city to try to give 20 percent of new construction jobs created to “qualified” city residents and another 5 percent to those with criminal records.

In drafting the ordinance, staff from the Economic Development and law departments made sure it was voluntary, so as not to scare away potential investment in a high-taxed city that needs to retain and attract business.

To do otherwise could also land the city in legal trouble, according to a 2013 study by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program of so-called local-hire statutes.

Crafting a message

Downtown developer Phil Kuchma, a former council member, addressing that legislative body prior to Monday’s vote, said he supported the ordinance, but that it must not be portrayed as a requirement.

“This ordinance could have a negative impact on economic development projects in this city. ... Let’s do this well,” Kuchma said. “Let’s not let the wrong message be sent out.”

And, Kuchma said, the ordinance should be backed up by efforts to ensure residents are ready to work.

“It’s a great opportunity for the people of city and the city to create a pool,” Kuchma said. “People have to be prepared.”

The assumption behind the ordinance is that developers pass over skilled locals.

“These contractors claim they can’t find anybody in Bridgeport to work on some of these jobs,” said Councilwoman the Rev. Mary McBride-Lee.

Newton said, “Out of (a population of) 147,000 we have to have people qualified for jobs.”

In the past, Newton and others have faulted deals between Bridgeport and developers that include project labor agreements (PLAs) requiring the hiring of unionized workers and payment of prevailing wages and benefits. Critics argue PLAs can shut out locals and minorities — something that has been strongly disputed by organized labor.

And PLAs can establish local hiring goals.

Aiding re-entry

A year ago Mayor Joe Ganim and the council, despite opposition from organized labor, struck a controversial deal to redevelop the downtown Poli Palace and Majestic theaters with Exact Capital out of New York, in an arrangement that did not include a PLA.

“There are a lot of people — your constituents — that aren’t in a union that need jobs,” Newton, who was not a council member at the time, said during a 2017 public hearing on the agreement with Exact.

But the Ganim administration also helped establish a union apprenticeship training program as part of a deal allowing coal plant operator PSEG to build a new gas-fired power plant along the harbor.

Bridgeport-based The WorkPlace, a workforce development nonprofit, manages PSEG’s union apprenticeship initiative. Joe Carbone, The Workplace’s president, said Tuesday said he believes “there is already a substantial number of people in Bridgeport that are in fact ready and prepared when it comes to jobs in construction.”

Carbone said the council’s hiring ordinance sounded like a good, modest initiative, especially for ex-felons. Carbone credited Ganim, who, along with Newton has a criminal record, for prioritizing making Bridgeport friendly for citizens returning from prison.

“I’d like to see more developers — and hopefully this (ordinance) is a guide — offer to be accommodating and work with us on helping to ensure more folks (involved with) re-entry programs are hired.”

Asked by Hearst following Monday’s vote to explain his opposition to hiring ex-felons, given he serves with Ganim and Newton, DeFilippo indicated he believes the hiring ordinance is a meaningless, feel-good piece of legislation.

“Nobody’s opposed to hiring Bridgeport residents,” DeFilippo emphasized. But, he said, “You need resources; train these people. You just want to pass something through to pat yourself on the back.”

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