Spears wants Jefferson Parish to focus on jobs in public projects

Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears wants the parish administration to take a hard look at whether more could be done to comply with federal guidelines designed to create job opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents on public projects.

Spears raised the issue at the council’s Jan. 30 meeting when he asked for information on whether the parish is complying with Section 3 of the federal Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. That provision mandates that a percentage of jobs on certain federally financed public projects be set aside for individuals who make between 50 percent and 80 percent of the median income for an area. Up to 30 percent of positions on some jobs can be set aside for those workers, the regulations state.

The program applies to a wide range of projects, including the construction or rehabilitation of housing, along with other public projects like street repairs, sewage line work and building improvements, according to a primer provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal officials require that contractors and public bodies go a “step beyond” normal hiring practices to reach eligible individuals when projects reach certain spending limits.

Spears said he made the request, which he said is being reviewed by the parish attorney, because he was approached by some individuals who were concerned that the parish wasn’t complying with federal law. When Spears got a better understanding of the program, he had some of the same concerns and wasn’t sure parish residents were getting every opportunity to improve their circumstances.

“I just want to make sure this program was being used,” Spears said. “I don’t know if we are.”

One of the departments that must comply with the Section 3 program is the parish’s community development office. That department funnels millions in community development block grants and other funding to parish municipalities and other agencies.

Director Anatola Thompson said that whenever the parish issues funding, it notifies contractors that they must seek out moderate- and low-income workers. However, federal guidelines say those rules only apply to projects where new hires are made and where it is “feasible” to hire those workers. Many contractors report that they don’t make any new hires, or that when they sought out eligible workers they couldn’t find any qualified to hold the jobs.

“The main thing is they have to at least put forth the effort… Most times when people bid on jobs they know who they are going to hire,” Thompson said. “Then it might be an issue that (workers) don’t have the skill set.”

She said she understands that Spears wants the parish to consider new ways seek out eligible workers, and she’s open to that idea. But, Thompson noted that with tight parish budgets, she’s not sure how much they parish can invest.

Spears said one step is finding someone who can verify whether companies are actually taking real steps to seek out eligible employees. That goes beyond requiring them to sign an affidavit and instead means examining their hiring practices. Spears would like to see a parish employee, possibly the parish’s ethics and compliance officer, take on the task of making sure the rules are being followed. He said it’s still not clear how many parish departments would have to follow the rules.

In addition, Spears said the parish could partner with private agencies that do job training to get people ready for jobs, although he stressed that he doesn’t think the parish should spend any additional money. The parish could maintain a listing of residents who meet the Section 3 requirements so they could be referred to companies seeking work, or it could find a company that already does something similar. Right now, the parish doesn’t go far enough, Spears said.

“It’s a lot easier to sign off on a paper and say ‘Yeah, I looked,” Spears said. “It’s important enough that we go verify… It’s an extra step that needs to be taken to make sure we’re protecting the parish’s interests.”

Spears noted that with the impending closure of the Avondale shipyard, parish residents are desperately looking for chances to work. He said that his office often feels like an employment agency because of how often residents call there looking for jobs. If there are federal guidelines in place that will make things easier for the parish’s most vulnerable population, then Spears says they need to be followed closely.

“I see this as just a win/win for people in the parish,” said Spears, adding that he only wishes he’d known about the mandate when millions of federal dollars were flowing through the parish after Hurricane Katrina. “There’s a lot of people in Jefferson Parish being left behind.”