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D.C. Council chairman proposes higher residency requirements for city contractors

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 7:28 PM

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown introduced a far-reaching proposal Tuesday that would require city contractors to guarantee that at least 20 percent of their workforce lives in the city, a percentage that grows dramatically for construction projects.

Brown's legislation would not only overhaul a 1984 law that set hiring requirements for District contractors but also would set the stage for a debate over how to lower the city's high unemployment rate.

Called the First Source Employment Agreement, the law requires businesses that receive a city contract to ensure that at least 51 percent of new hires for a project will be District residents.

Brown (D-At Large), who campaigned last year on putting city residents back to work, wants to expand the program by imposing new residency requirements that up to 70 percent of some types of workers on construction sites would be District residents, regardless of when they were hired.

"Now we are saying it's not just about new workers, it's about making sure all hours of work are a certain percentage of D.C. residents, and putting real teeth behind it," Brown said.

Brown's proposal comes as he and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) seek to fulfill campaign promises to toughen First Source and reform a city bureaucracy they say has not done enough to prepare District residents for jobs.

Last week, Gray received a report from his transition team on suggestions for improving workforce development. By introducing his bill Tuesday, Brown appears to be positioning the council out front of the issue.

When a reporter asked Brown if Gray had been briefed on the bill, the chairman replied: "Why would we run it by him? We are the legislative branch of government."

"My staff has talked with his [staff], and gave them the bill," Brown said.

Under Brown's proposal "each government-assisted project or contract" worth $300,000 or more would have to agree that 20 percent of non-construction-related staff work is done by a city resident.

The requirements, which are making some business leaders uneasy, grow even more stringent on construction contractors who would work on projects such as the new Walter E. Washington Convention Center hotel.

According to the bill, which was co-introduced by Council members Michael A. Brown(I-At Large) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) , at least 25 percent of "journey worker" hours would have to be performed by city residents. A journey worker is a highly skilled laborer with two to four years of apprenticeship experience.

When a company uses apprentices for a project partially or fully funded by the District, at least half of them would have to be District residents. And, if the bill is approved, for positions filled by "common laborers" - unskilled workers on a construction site - at least 70 percent will have to be District residents.

During last year's campaign for chairman, Gray and Brown both criticized former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) for not doing enough to enforce First Source. A D.C. auditor's report, released in May, found that four out of 16 development projects surveyed met the requirement.

While they acknowledge the program needs to be reformed, local business leaders and developers said Brown's legislation needs careful examination.

Barbara Lang, executive director of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said it would be premature to enact legislation without more resources first being devoted to job training. Before placing new requirements on contractors, she said, the council should reform the Department of Employment Services, which is charged with training unskilled residents and matching them with jobs.

"I applaud the chairman for getting this issue out there, but I think there are some things that have to be done first before we are ready to enforce this," said Lang, who worked on Gray's jobs and economic development transition team. " I, meaning the people I represent, will go to DOES any day of the week and they cannot provide the employees to fill these jobs."

Merrick Malone, president of the D.C. Building Industry Association, said he worries that Brown's proposal could be a "nightmare to manage" and would be too hard to enforce.

"I understand what he is trying to do, and quite frankly I applaud what he is trying to do, but the issue is whether this is the right strategy," said Malone, who plans to closely review the bill. "I don't think it's any secret this mayor and this chair have made it perfectly clear this is a high priority, and they are not wasting any time."

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