PORTLAND, Maine — Despite a more modest recommendation from its Finance Committee, the City Council on Monday voted 6-3 to create a minimum wage for Portland workers of $10.10 per hour.
The minimum will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, will increase to $10.68 in 2017, and will be pegged to the rate of inflation beginning in 2018.
The state-mandated minimum wage is $7.50 per hour, 25 cents more than the minimum guaranteed by federal law.
The new city ordinance is similar to one drafted by a public task force last September and first suggested in January 2014 by Mayor Michael Brennan. But the Finance Committee scaled back the draft in April to a minimum wage of $8.75 next year, with a phased increase to $9.75 in 2020.
The committee’s proposal would not have been tied to the rate of inflation, and would not have applied to jobs whose wages are based on tips.
On Monday, Councilor Jon Hinck proposed adopting the original pay hikes, saying they hit “the sweet spot.”
“There is no science for this,” Hinck said. “… but one thing I’m confident in is that we’re not being too aggressive.”
Councilor Ed Suslovic, who voted in the minority with Councilors David Brenerman and Nicholas Mavodones Jr., acknowledged that there was universal support on the council for a higher minimum wage.
“The question is how much, how fast,” Suslovic said.
He tried unsuccessfully to table the vote until the council’s July 20 meeting, where the agenda is expected to include a citizens initiative to set a city-wide minimum of $15 per hour by 2019.
The Portland Green Independent Party recently submitted a petition for a Nov. 3 referendum on the so-called “livable” wage. The council has the option to adopt the proposal before it goes to voters.
The citizens initiative and Monday’s vote cap an ongoing debate over wages in the city, which some say are lagging far behind Portland’s cost of living, especially housing costs.
Opponents counter that requiring city employers to pay more than the state-mandated minimum wage is unnecessary, and will drive businesses elsewhere.
Like prior meetings of the task force and the Finance Committee, the council meeting drew public comments on both sides of the wage war, in nearly two hours of debate.
Greg Dugal, who heads the Maine Innkeepers Association and the Maine Restaurant Association, warned that by hiking the minimum wage, Portland would take a dangerous step – with little experience as a guide.
“You’ll be the only city in New England, the Northeast or north of Washington, D.C., to have its own wage,” he said.
Restaurant owner Steve DiMillo criticized the ordinance’s inclusion of tipped workers, many of whom he said already make more than minimum wage. “I think this proposal is detrimental to the most successful sector of Portland’s economy,” he said.
Others felt the ordinance didn’t go far enough.
Mako Bates, who last week took out nomination papers for the District 2 seat on the council, said “this is a step in the right direction, but it’s timid to the point of embarrassment.”
Green Independent Party Chairman Tom MacMillan urged the adoption of his group’s proposed $15 wage. And he criticized warnings that Portland would be an “outlier” among cities that have set their own minimum wages.
“Lots of small cities have a minimum wage,” MacMillan said. “And it’s a red herring to say that Portland is too small a city to support one.”
But on the council, Brenerman expressed that very concern.
“We would be one of a handful of cities, the smallest, and the only one in New England to do this,” he said. “I think we have to approach it in a more moderate way.”
Mavodones, who chairs the Finance Committee, agreed.
“I don’t think we know the right amount, I think we have to go on our instincts,” he said. “The committee’s recommendation tried to balance what we heard from labor and concerns about unintended consequences.”
But Brennan responded to criticism of the ordinance by saying that “the research is on our side … (a higher minimum wage) doesn’t lead to job loss, it leads to people being out of poverty.”
“This is the right thing to do in Portland,” Brennan said. “At the very least, if you work in a restaurant, you should be able to go out and enjoy that restaurant.”