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Bridgeport pushes developers to hire locally

September 7, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — City officials are accustomed to developers seeking public subsidies and promising, in return, to put locals to work.

An effort now is under way to ensure qualified city residents, including those with criminal records, are first in line for those new jobs.

An ordinance making its way through the City Council and supported by Mayor Joe Ganim’s administration encourages developers who receive tax breaks, land sale deals or other incentives to make 20 percent of the resultant workforce Bridgeport residents, and an additional 5 percent individuals with criminal records.

The goals would be written into all future development deals.

“Even before this language, we would hope the companies that come to Bridgeport and do business in Bridgeport would hire people from Bridgeport,” said Councilman Ernest Newton, himself an ex-felon, who has been spearheading the proposal. “This spells it out, though. ... We want to make it up front this is what we want.”

Ganim, too, has a criminal record and has sought ways to make Bridgeport friendlier for individuals who have served their time.

But Newton and other city officials emphasized the jobs ordinance does not force developers to meet the listed hiring goals.

“We think it’s very important to be accurate about what the program is so folks will understand it as a proactive program,” said William Coleman, deputy director of planning and economic development. “It’s not a requirement. It’s a good faith effort.”

“This is not ‘you’re forced to do it,’” said Council President Aidee Nieves, acknowledging the City Attorney’s Office worked with Newton on fine-tuning the language.

The point, Nieves said, is to encourage developers who receive subsidies from the city to, in return, be proactive when it comes to providing work to locals and ex-felons by advertising, working with unions, hosting job fairs and collaborating with existing Bridgeport agencies that help the unemployed — including Career Resources Inc. where Newton works.

There are no stated penalties. But if the ordinance passes, developers — before applying for their building permits — “shall” meet with the city’s contract compliance officer to show they sought to hire locally, or to seek a waiver for not doing so.

“The language was very important to make it friendly, not aggressive and overly assertive,” Nieves said.

“We’re not trying to scare companies from doing business here,” Newton said.

To do so would fly in the face of other efforts by the Ganim administration and economic development department to make Bridgeport more business-friendly. Last fall, for example, the council placed limits on the scope of tax breaks the city offers, but, at the urging of the economic development staff, also relinquished its power to vote on those individual deals.

That latter change was controversial. Proponents promoted it as sending a signal to investors that the politics was being taken out of the awarding of subsidies. Critics like Newton argued the council was giving up its authority.

Legal hurdles

Stronger language that required developers to hire locally might score some political points with voters but could also face legal challenges.

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program in a 2013 study concluded that local hiring preference programs “may run afoul of constitutional provisions” and of federal requirements if federal funds are part of a project’s financing.

That study also found that “traditional local hire statutes, local ordinances and regulations have been subject to successful legal challenges.”

Donald Shubert is president of the Connecticut Construction Industries Association, which represents large commercial contractors, union and non-union. Shubert said there is a big difference between an ordinance forcing the hiring of residents versus one that encourages it.

Requirements “may present both legal problems and will present practical implementation problems,” Shubert told Hearst Connecticut Media.

Shubert praised one section of Newton’s proposed ordinance that emphasizes the residents and ex-felons must be “qualified applicants.”

“So it doesn’t mean you have to hire just anybody,” Shubert said.

The ordinance also specifies that the developer “will not replace any of its current workforce” in order to meet the city’s stated local hiring goals.

“They’ve got all the right language in there,” said Shubert.

Lisa Trachtenberg, a lawyer for the city who helped draft the jobs ordinance, noted that it is separate from Bridgeport’s Small and Minority Business office and related regulations aimed at helping local business owners get work on big development projects.

“They are separate and distinct issues,” Trachtenberg said. “We have Bridgeport residents who deserve (job) opportunities just because they are residents. This is ‘racial neutral.’”

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