Erie County government construction and infrastructure projects of $250,000 or more must employ local workers, and 20 percent of the work must be done by workers who are either poor or from poor communities, according to an executive order signed Wednesday by County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
The policy takes effect Sunday.
The threshhold rises to 30 percent in the second year of the policy.
The county spends roughly $30 million a year on construction projects, largely on road, bridge and sewer projects.
Keeping a pledge he made last year to ensure that the bulk of taxpayer-funded county projects benefit residents who live and work in the region, Poloncarz announced a "first source" policy that requires all workers on major county projects live in the eight-county Western New York region. Seventy percent of the work hours must be performed by Erie County residents.
A worker's economic standing or disadvantaged status will be judged by their income, Social Services benefits, length of unemployment or their post-incarceration status. A community is considered poor if the poverty rate is 20 percent or more.
The impoverished communities are within 16 target zip codes in Erie County, including neighborhoods in the cities of Buffalo and Lackawanna, and the towns of Brant and Wales.
In a growing economy, Poloncarz said, no one should be left behind. Standing outside the Rath Building with dozens of community group leaders and union trades supporters, he repeated the adage that "a rising tide raises all ships."
"People are truly our greatest resource," he said. "We understand the dignity of work for all."
Daniel Colon, 28, spoke about how he became employed by People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH, and was given the opportunity to learn the construction trade from the ground up.
"I didn't even know how to read a measuring tape when I started," he said.
Now he's training high school dropouts to do work in the field. Though PUSH Buffalo employees work on private, not public, projects, Colon and other PUSH staff said the county's new first source policy will guarantee more work for underprivileged job seekers like themselves.
A waiver process exists for contractors who can prove they've made a strong effort to recruit local and disadvantaged workers but were unable to meet the threshold requirements. Contractors who are found to be out of compliance with the policy will be given the opportunity to fix the situation or face being banned from the project and future county projects for a year, Poloncarz said.
Many speakers referred to the idea that taxpayer-funded projects should provide local employment opportunities.
"It's our money going into those projects, and the notion is that our money should yield public benefits," said PUSH Buffalo Executive Director Aaron Bartley. "There is no more important public benefit than jobs in our communities."
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said a lot of talk has been devoted to the fact that Buffalo is booming but the Buffalo poverty rate remains largely unchanged. While everyone recognizes the need to link people to jobs, Poloncarz has taken action by creating a policy that directly links disadvantaged job seekers to "jobs that will get you into the middle class," Ryan said.
Poloncarz has been pushing for the creation of this policy since early last year, citing it as one of his State of the County goals in 2016. It has taken this long, working with stakeholders, to craft a policy that he called reasonable and achievable.
Paul Brown, president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, which represents unionized construction workers, said when he first heard about the policy, he thought it was "nuts." But now, he said, he can be assured that young and underprivileged job seekers who have completed pre-apprenticeship training will find apprenticeship work on job sites.
Regarding the concern that such a policy might drive up construction costs, Brown said the opposite would more likely be true because the 20 percent set aside for disadvantaged workers would likely bring in more workers with less experience and who would be paid at a lower rate.