Portland minimum wage proposal may be ready by October

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PORTLAND — Mayor Michael Brennan said Aug. 20 he favors increasing the minimum wage in the city to $9.50 an hour.

His Minimum Wage Advisory Committee will meet Sept. 11 before City Councilors can consider a new ordinance, perhaps in October.

The meeting at 4 p.m. in City Hall Room 209 was scheduled after a turbulent committee forum at the Portland Public Library.

Brennan would like to have an ordinance ready by October and in effect by Jan. 1, 2015. In July, he suggested the $9.50 per hour wage could be followed by increases to $10.10 on Jan. 1, 2016, and $10.68 on Jan. 1, 2017. Annual increases would then be tied to the rate of inflation.

The wage rates would apply to private, public and nonprofit employees, while the state law allowing workers earning $30 or more a month in tips to be paid 50 percent of the minimum wage would remain in place.

The forum provided the first opportunity for full public comment on work the committee has done since April to enact a goal Brennan outlined in January in his annual speech on the state of the city.

The fate of the “tipped wage” drew much of the attention from more than 25 residents and business owners. Activists from the New England chapter of 15 Now urged Brennan to set the wage at $15 per hour without exceptions; restaurant owners including David Turin, Noah Talmatch, Steve DiMillo and Michelle Corry supported an increased minimum wage, while keeping the tipped wage.

“The only outcome will be increased unemployment and costs to consumers,” said Talmatch, a co-owner of North Point on Silver Street and Timber Steakhouse on Exchange Street.

Talmatch’s claim that increasing the wage will lead to business closures and eventually the loss of other construction and ancillary jobs that support the restaurant industry led local attorney Seth Berner to accuse him of “economic blackmail.”

The remark was in keeping with the tone between business owners and worker advocates.

“There is a general feeling restaurants run roughshod over the law,” said Turin, the owner of adjacent restaurants in Monument Square. He said IRS statements filed by his tipped workers show they earn an average of $44,000 annually.

Andy Moxley of 15 Now argued the data was skewed and the claim of average wages did not reflect reality. 

“The landlord does not let you pay a shorter amount of rent because you had a slower night at the restaurant,” Moxley said.

An increase in the tipped wage to keep it at 50 percent of the proposed city minimum wage could cost restaurant owners as much as $1,750 per server annually, Maine Restaurant Association President and CEO Greg Dugal said Aug. 21.

Even earning close to Brennan’s initial increase is not easy, Pete Franzen said.

“I’m doing OK, as long as I don’t see the dentist and I don’t need a car,” Franzen said.

The current Maine minimum wage is $7.50 per hour and was last increased in 2009. In researching if, how and how much a citywide wage should be created the committee has sought advice and perspective from sources including University of Southern Maine professor Charles Colgan and Portland Buy Local.

A survey of Portland Buy Local’s 480 members drew about a 14 percent response and showed 61 percent of those responding already paid starting wages of at least $10 per hour. Buy Local is comprised of independently owned businesses whose owners live within 50 miles of Portland.

Portland Buy Local will not take a public stance on the issue, board member Tony Cox said at the June committee meeting.

Chris O’Neil of the Portland Community Chamber of Commerce said the chamber has “not articulated – indeed we have not arrived at – a position on what amount the minimum wage should be.”

O’Neil noted a lack of consensus on the effects of a minimum wage increase and suggested city government should also be looking at ways to reduce the area’s cost of living and to bring in higher-paying jobs.

“Let’s get a clear accounting of who in Portland makes $7.50 per hour, not just how many workers, but their occupations,” O’Neil said.

In charting a course between the hoped-for $15 per hour and elimination of tipped wages, Brennan and the committee were also cautioned to think about effects of applying a minimum wage to all age groups.

“We are living in a morbidly skewed economy, we have to start naming this,” Peaks Island resident Aaiyn Foster said as she supported tiered wages for adults and minors. “In my mind, if you give a 15-year-old $15 an hour, how many of them will stay in school?”

Former Biddeford Mayor James Grattelo, who owns Joker’s Family Fun and Games on Warren Avenue, also suggested a student wage for those under 18.

Otherwise, Grattelo said, “I am one of the businesses that will have to close their doors.”

Collision repair centers owner Shawn Moody, a 2010 independent gubernatorial candidate, said the wage argument was the wrong focus and would hurt small business owners.

“I don’t believe in the redistribution of wealth when it is government imposed,” he said, while suggesting “unconditional love” was a reason his parents raised successful children without great material wealth.

Chaka-Khan Gordon, who recently moved to Portland from the San Francisco area, said the minimum wage in that city does not fully address cost of living issues, and also rebutted Moody.

“It is easier to be poor here than in San Francisco or Berkeley,” Gordon said, “(but) unconditional love never put food in the belly of a child.”

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

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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.