South Portland council shows interest in minimum-wage hike

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SOUTH PORTLAND — City councilors on Monday took a united stand that the  minimum wage is too low.

But they expressed varying support for independently raising the city’s minimum wage.

Councilor Brad Fox, who initiated the workshop discussion, said regulating the minimum wage is a job for the council and local government. 

“When I originally thought of the idea to bring this to the council, I thought that we should just tag along with Portland,” Fox said. “I still think that’s what probably we should do.”

Maine’s current minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, 25 cents above the federal minimum. Portland and Bangor have initiated efforts to raise their respective minimum wages, and on April 16 the Portland City Council Finance Committee voted unanimously to increase the city’s minimum to $8.75

The Portland ordinance would increase the wage incrementally every two years until 2020, when it would cap at $9.75. The committee also backed maintaining lower wages that factor in tip money, like those in hospitality industry jobs, at 50 percent of the minimum.

While communities across the state are weighing the possibility of increasing wages, Gov. Paul LePage in mid-April introduced a bill that would promote wage consistency across the state by preventing cities and towns from enacting their own minimums.

“I think it’s great for us to come out in support of increasing minimum wage and going for a livable wage,” Mayor Linda Cohen said, “but I’d really like to see what the Legislature does over the next month with the many bills they’ve got before them.”

For some residents who make a minimum wage, “it’s like a vicious circle,” Cohen said. “They just can’t get out of poverty or are just barely making it because they just are not making enough and that’s just not right.”

“Every time I hear someone’s making minimum wage, I just cringe,” the mayor said. “But I don’t see this as a municipal issue, I do see it more as a regional, even a state issue.”

Most councilors agreed that providing regional uniformity in wages would be the best option. 

“I think it’s important for fairness of workforce that we create a regional-state mandate around what our livable wage is,” Councilor Patti Smith said. “It’s just pitting towns against one another if we’ve got different wage structures.”

The solution isn’t solved by simply increasing the minimum wage, she said.

“It’s not an isolated incident of, let’s just work on the livable wage,” Smith said. “We need to think about how we house people, how we feed people, all of those things go into having it be a livable situation for someone who lives in the greater Portland area.”

She referenced Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s wage calculator for Cumberland County, which tabulates a minimum wage for one adult to be $10.03, and a poverty wage at $5.21. 

For a family of five, a living wage is more than three times as much as the minimum wage, at $25.15 and the poverty wage is $12.40.

“I have to say, it’s really sad when you’ve got someone sitting across your desk wanting to get a car loan so that they can get back and forth to work everyday, but they’re income at their job doesn’t support them getting the car loan,” Cohen said. 

Councilors agreed to gather more substantive, concrete information before formal discussion takes place at a scheduled meeting and before a law is proposed.

Councilor Tom Blake said he would prefer doing something more immediate.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of resistance,” Blake said. “To sit here as a government and to say we’re OK with $7.50 an hour (and) you’re not going to have any money for your medical or your clothing, I think is wrong of us as leaders. We need to do something.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.