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Bangor’s minimum wage debate could be decided in two weeks

Nick McCrea | BDN
Nick McCrea | BDN
City councilors debate the merits of a proposed local minimum wage increase during a workshop Monday night at City Hall in Bangor.

BANGOR, Maine — The City Council could finally bring closure to the months-long debate over whether the city should raise the local minimum wage during a meeting in two weeks.

Councilors and city officials met Monday night for a workshop to hash through some of the concerns that have made this an issue of contention for months.

When they sit down for their regular meeting on Dec. 14, councilors will be eyeing two proposals.

The first is one that Councilor Joe Baldacci brought forward in July. That proposal would increase Bangor’s minimum wage from $7.50 per hour — the current state level — up by annual increments until it reaches $9.75 in 2018. After that, the wage would increase based on the consumer price index.

It would apply to any employers with more than four employees, and only to employees over the age of 18.

The other proposal was brought forward by Councilor Josh Plourde after attempts to pass the original proposal faltered. In his version, the first increment of the wage increase wouldn’t happen until the start of 2017.

By that time, a statewide referendum vote could decide whether Maine will increase its minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020. That would effectively serve as a council endorsement of the statewide referendum. Bangor’s ordinance would serve as a backup measure, increasing the city’s minimum wage in the event that the statewide effort falters.

“It’s not a compromise, it’s a failsafe,” argued Councilor Gibran Graham. “It’s a failsafe in case someone else doesn’t do what we expect them to do. … That’s not why we’re here.”

Councilors have largely agreed that the minimum wage needs a bump. Neither Maine nor the federal government have increased their minimum wage since 2009, but the cost of living in Maine continues to rise.

What they’ve differed over is how that should be done.

Councilor David Nealley has been the staunchest opponent of the proposals, arguing that the City Council would be overstepping its bounds by passing a minimum wage hike. He said a localized wage increase could be more damaging than beneficial to the city’s small businesses — especially restaurants — and the city’s overall business climate. If the minimum wage is going to increase, he said, it should be done at the state or federal level, not in city and town halls.

“We need to have a national discussion, we need to have a state discussion, we need to have local discussions,” Baldacci said. “We’ve had this discussion for a long time, and I think it’s been a productive, important discussion.”

Baldacci said his main goal at this point is to get an ordinance passed that will “improve people’s lives.”

Councilors could propose changes and adjustments to either proposal, before deciding whether to pass either one or neither one on Dec. 14. There have been disagreements among councilors over whether workers under age 18 should be included in the minimum wage hike, as well as whether and how wages of tipped employees should be handled. Councilors could seek to change those aspects of either plan before it goes up for a vote.

Tyson Lo, son of the owners of Oriental Jade, one of Bangor’s longest running restaurants, said increasing wages for tipped employees could effectively double their wages and “disproportionately hurt full-service restaurants” and make it harder to do business in the same way. He said such a move at the local level also would hurt Bangor’s business-friendly image.

The minimum wage vote is scheduled to be held during the council’s next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, in council chambers at Bangor City Hall. Members of the public and business owners with thoughts on these proposals have one last chance to chime in during that meeting before councilors make their decisions.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213


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