Portland minimum wage not ready for council debate

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PORTLAND — An ordinance to create a city-wide minimum wage may not get full City Council consideration until February 2015, Mayor Michael Brennan said Dec. 11 after a public hearing held by the City Council Finance Committee.

The ordinance to create a minimum wage beginning at $9.50 per hour continued to draw praise and criticism during the City Hall hearing, but the committee, with Councilor Nick Mavodones Jr. as chairman, would like an impact study before making its recommendation to the full City Council.

Since a Nov. 20 committee meeting where the wage was discussed, the proposed ordinance has been tweaked to now include workers as young as 16, instead of 18, and to establish a city position to enforce the ordinance at a potential annual cost of $40,000 to $50,000, plus benefits.

The ordinance would increase the wage from the state required $7.50 per hour to $9.50 on July 1, 2015, and be followed by increases to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2016, and $10.68 on Jan. 1, 2017.

Future increases would be tied to increases in the urban measure of the Consumer Price Index.

Countering opinions on the wages and how they affect workers earning tips did not differ much from those heard in hearings dating back to August, and centered on business owners fearing an unsustainable increase in their costs, while supporters spoke of an unsustainable cost of living in the city.

“Where is the money going to come from?” asked Don Rubinoff, the owner of Back Cove Pizza and BBQ on Ocean Avenue. He said he already works more than 100 hours a week and cannot afford to hire staff based on mandated minimums.

Supporters, including Maine Green Independent Party members Tom MacMillan, Asher Platts and Lauren Besanko, said it is time to raise the minimum wage to a standard where it is a living wage, especially because cost-of-living measurements indicate the city is becoming as expensive as Chicago.

City resident Sailor Cartwright, a member of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center, described earning wages that have increased less than $2 per hour from the $8.50 earned in 1999, while now having to share a home with three others because rents have doubled.

While opponents said “wage creep” would require raises for those now earning just above the proposed minimum wage, Cartwright said it was due.

“It has been creeping slowly enough since rent has tripled,” Cartwright said.

Tipped wages continued to be a source of contention in terms of how the state and city laws might conflict and what it could cost city restaurant owners.

State law allows business owners to pay staff earning $30 a month in tips 50 percent of the minimum wage, and restaurant owners including Steve DiMillo of DiMillo’s on the Water have long argued tipped staff are the best paid staff.

If the ordinance boosts the city tipped wage to $4.75 per hour and keeps it at 50 percent of the city wage after that, DiMillo said Dec. 11, it could cost him $91,000 in just the first year.

Chris Tyll, the owner of Pat’s Pizza on Market Street, estimated the new wage would cost $41,000 initially, and said any minimum wage increase should be done at the state level.

Brennan has said tipped workers would only have to be paid more than the tipped wage when their earnings do not amount to the minimum wage, but Greg Dugal, Maine Restaurant Association president and CEO, said unless the ordinance specifically lists the “tipped credit” at $3.75 per hour, it could be interpreted in a costly manner for restaurant owners.

Nat Lippert of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center disputed suggestions that tipped workers are among the best paid in restaurants and said it is time to stop the economic squeeze on workers trying to live in Portland.

“We need to be talking about an hourly wage that would cover all the expenses and basic needs that allow us to live with dignity,” he said. “We have the ability to make this city affordable.”

Initially written to exclude workers under 18, the proposed ordinance now sets the minimum age at 16.

“It seems appropriate to not exclude both of these categories since such exclusions will likely lead to confusion,” city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta wrote in a memo to the Finance Committee, adding the state minimum wage is also applied to people 16 and older.

Larry Davis, owner of the Down Front store on Peaks Island, said he employs more than 20 teenagers and supports a lower wage for workers under 18 because he doubts anyone would hire someone with no work history at $9.50 per hour or more.

Maine Women’s Lobby Executive Director Eliza Townsend, also a member the subcommittee Brennan formed in March to consider a minimum wage policy and its effects, supported eliminating the tipped wage credit and paying the new minimum wage to workers under 18.

Townsend said the ordinance would benefit single mothers and teens who are working to support themselves or their families, without harming businesses that rely on seasonal tourism.

“The ocean isn’t up and leaving, the things that make this a beautiful city are not up and leaving,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

An earlier version of this story used an incorrect pronoun to refer to Sailor Cartwright, who is transgender, and misstated the name of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center.

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Storm water fee heads to City Council

PORTLAND — A plan to pay for infrastructure improvements for city storm water systems by assessing a new fee to property owners was unanimously recommended Thursday, Dec. 11, by the City Council Finance Committee.

The plan to charge a monthly fee of $6 per 1,200 square feet of impervious surface to all public and private land owners will now be taken up by the City Council and subject to a public hearing.

The fee would be assessed in addition to existing water use fees from the Portland Water District, although PWD fees will be reduced by $1.50 per hundred cubic yards. All properties of at least 400 square feet will be included, with the exception of roads, runways and railroad tracks.

Residents of all Casco Bay islands except Peaks Island will also be exempt from the fees.

As outlined by city Public Services Director Mike Bobinsky and Ian Houseal, the assistant to acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian, the fees will help pay for continued projects to separate storm and waste water flows, treat accumulated storm water, and upgrade systems at the PWD water treatment plant near East End Beach.

The work is needed to fulfill city obligations in a consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection to abate the flow of raw sewage into Back Cove and Casco Bay.

Property owners could also earn credits for reducing imperious surfaces such as sidewalks and driveways, or installing rain gardens or other items to reduce the flow of storm water. The city has also provided an online look-up page for individual properties to show what potential fees may be.

The plan, which would be added to Chapter 24 of the city Code, is intended to be implemented Jan. 1, 2016. The city will first send out sample bills and meet with property owners to discuss possible credits.

— David Harry

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.