BANGOR, Maine — A proposed ordinance to implement a local minimum wage for Bangor won a potential new supporter on the City Council after more than 30 people spoke on the issue during a public hearing Wednesday.
Councilor Gibran Graham, who had previously reserved judgment on the issue, spoke in favor of the ordinance.
“I do want to see it done at the federal level, I want to see it done at the state level,” he said. “But we can’t just wait for it to happen, because it’s not happening.”
With four councilors opposed to the ordinance, support from Graham would leave Councilor Ben Sprague with the deciding vote.
Sprague was not present for the hearing, having announced Monday he would likely be unavailable due to the impending birth of his second child. He planned to watch a video recording of the hearing though.
Graham’s supportive words Wednesday were not unconditional though. He objected to two provisions of the ordinance that would exempt workers under the age of 18 as well as tipped employees.
Councilor Joe Baldacci, who proposed the minimum wage ordinance, said he crafted the ordinance in a manner he felt made it most likely to pass in Bangor.
While he told the public at the beginning of the hearing he felt it would be difficult for the city to enforce a minimum wage for tipped employees, he said in response to Graham that he has no problem removing the two exemptions.
If approved, the ordinance proposed by Baldacci would incrementally increase the local minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.25 per hour in 2016, $9 per hour in 2017 and $9.75 in 2018.
After that, the minimum wage would fluctuate with the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation.
Graham did not mention a provision that exempts employers with three or fewer workers. He said he would discuss with Baldacci possible amendments prior to the next council meeting.
He also argued that a local minimum wage hike would provide a more gradual cost increase for employers, believing a campaign by the Maine People’s Alliance to increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 through a proposed citizen-initiated referendum would succeed.
Council Chairman Nelson Durgin said the full council will consider the ordinance during its next meeting July 27.
However, he said he would consult with legal counsel about possibly referring the issue to committee when pressed by Councilor Josh Plourde for more discussion at the committee level.
Unless otherwise announced, the issue is still scheduled for a vote July 27, according to Durgin.
Plourde, an opponent of the ordinance, said the city would likely need to hire at least one person to enforce a local minimum wage and other unknown costs to the city. That person would likely be laid off if a proposed statewide referendum to increase the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020 passes in 2016.
More than 50 people attended Wednesday’s hearing and 30 spoke on the issue — 11 in opposition and 19 in favor, including Councilor Graham’s 17-year-old daughter Vanessa Graham.
“If you’re not willing to take risks, than nothing is going to get done,” she told the council. “You’re just going to sit around a table and you’re going to talk about it.”
Councilor Graham said he asked his daughter, a rising senior at Bangor High School, to attend because she will soon be entering the workforce and he felt the discussion would be important for her to hear.
He said he did not prompt her public comment on the issue.
Other supporters argued that providing a livable wage for those willing to work was a matter of fairness, that providing those residents more disposable income would help the local economy and that it would reduce their dependence on welfare programs.
They also argued the extra money would help more people go to college, escaping the cycle of poverty
“We all want people working $20- to $25-an-hour jobs, but in our current economy, you can’t reach those … well-paying jobs without a college education,” said Brendan Moore, a Bangor resident and rising sophomore at Columbia University.
Opponents argued a local minimum wage would burden small businesses, create barriers that would drive new businesses away from Bangor and eliminate entry level job opportunities.
“People need to be rewarded for the work they put out. It’s that simple,” said Rob Cross, owner of Dairy Queen on Broadway.
“(Entry level jobs) are not supposed to be the final step in the employee’s job aspirations,” said Scott Lynskey a Bangor resident.
Notably, no one who spoke at the meeting identified as a current minimum wage earner.
Maine has not raised its statewide minimum wage since 2009. According to city officials, had the statewide minimum wage been adjusted for inflation over the past 50 years, it would equal $9.15 per hour today.
The proposal comes in the wake of the Portland City Council’s 6-3 vote to raise the minimum wage there to $10.10 per hour in 2016 and $10.68 per hour in 2017, then tying it to inflation beginning in 2018.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the roughly 378,000 Maine workers who earn an hourly rate, about 3,000 earned the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour in 2012 and another 8,000 earned less than that.
According to Todd Gabe, an economics professor at the University of Maine, a minimum wage increase to $8.25 per hour would affect 7 percent of the 67,720 workers in the Bangor metropolitan statistical area, which includes surrounding towns and cities such as Brewer, Hampden, Orono, Old Town and Winterport.
That includes between 115 and 135 city part-time temporary and seasonal city employees who earn less than $8.25, representing an additional cost of $50,000 to $60,000, according to Assistant City Manager Robert Farrar.
At $9 per hour, 12 percent would be affected, and at $9.75 per hour, 18 percent would be affected, Gabe said.
According to city officials, Bangor has approximately 35,000 workers, roughly 6 percent of the state’s total workforce.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.