Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young will not agree to increase the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, dealing a blow to legislation that's aimed at lifting residents out of poverty but which critics say would sink the city's economy.
Young said this week that city government and Baltimore businesses can't afford to pay their lowest-wage workers more than $11.50 an hour. Young is an influential member of the council, which is split on the proposal.
"We just can't do $15," Young said. "Even $11.50 is a stretch, but I think it's a compromise. Anything other than that, I will not be voting for this bill."
The state-mandated minimum wage rose to $8.75 an hour this month and is scheduled to reach $10.10 an hour by 2018. The city finance department said increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost city government $150 million over five years and push the unemployment rate as high as 10.6 percent.
The council's Labor Committee amended the bill Thursday to exempt some small businesses, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the city's YouthWorks program from paying their employees the proposed $15 minimum. Council members have also agreed to delay the increase until 2022.
But those changes were not enough to sway Young.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was forced to close a $60 million budget deficit this year, and on Wednesday the Department of Transportation announced plans to scale back the Charm City Circulator, a free bus service used by 4 million riders a year. The department said that move was being made to save $6 million.
"We cannot continue to try to lead the state in these fiscal times that we have in the city of Baltimore," Young said.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who introduced the minimum-wage bill in April, said she won't budge from $15. She said the changes made during the committee work sessions this week would generate enough support for the bill to pass over Young's objection.
"Not only will it be an actual benefit," Clarke said. "It will be a symbol of hope and promise."
Councilman Robert Curran, the committee chairman, said the panel will vote on the bill next week. He hopes to have it before the full City Council in August.
A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake said she will sign the bill if the council approves it.
The Labor Committee agreed to exempt small businesses with fewer than 50 employees or less than $500,000 in gross annual income from paying employees $15 an hour.
Clarke said that would provide relief for many local businesses that would have felt the financial impact the most.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, said the amendment does not change his opposition.
"The fundamental issues still have not been solved," Fry said. "It sets Baltimore City apart from all other jurisdictions in this region and creates a competitive disadvantage against doing business in this area."
Also excluded were the city's YouthWorks program, which gave 8,000 Baltimore youths jobs this summer, and the Maryland Zoo. Curran pushed for the zoo exemption after officials said the higher minimum wage would cost at least $700,000 per year when fully implemented.
Donald P. Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Maryland Zoo, said that while the organization is financially healthy, that could change if the bill included it.
"As the minimum wage goes up and you get closer to the $15 threshold, the more difficult it is for us to make all the numbers work," he said.
The zoo operates under a 40-year lease between the state, city and Maryland Zoological Society. Hutchinson said they have a plan to absorb the statewide minimum-wage increases, but the city's plan would cost them too much.
All zoo employees make more than the minimum, but Hutchinson said he would like them to stay above the minimum as it increases.
The committee also reduced the wage increase for tipped workers. They would receive a minimum of $5 an hour by 2020.
Lester Davis, Young's spokesman, said the council president plans to introduce an amendment to scale back the increase to $11.50 when the legislation goes before the full 15-member council — if it is approved by the committee.
"We don't know of any poor cities that are surrounded by wealthier jurisdictions that have raised their minimum wage to the level the councilwoman is proposing," Davis said.
The council was split on the bill before it entered work sessions this week. Members Jim Kraft, Carl Stokes, Rikki Spector, Helen Holton and Bill Henry told The Baltimore Sun they would vote against the bill in its original form. Brandon Scott, Sharon Green Middleton and Curran said they leaned in favor of it. Others were undecided.
On Thursday, Clarke called it a "horse race" and expected a close council vote.
Councilman Warren Branch said this week that he's worried the bill would hurt businesses. He said he would rather see the minimum wage set at the state level.