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Baltimore City Council to vote on raising minimum wage

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said $11.50 is the most the city could afford. (Baltimore Sun video)

In a vote that is expected to be close, the Baltimore City Council is scheduled Monday to consider whether to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.

The bill's lead sponsor, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, expressed hope she has persuaded a majority of her colleagues to back the measure.

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"It's a close contest right now," Clarke said. "We've done a lot to address the objections raised. The working poor people in this city are not able to make ends meet even when they're working two jobs. That's a big reason why we have the divides we have in Baltimore."

Before the vote, Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is expected to propose an amendment to limit the increase to $11.50 an hour.

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A spokesman for Young said the council president believes scaling back the proposal would mitigate any negative impact on businesses while still helping workers.

The vote on Young's amendment is also expected to be close.

"It's going to be tight," spokesman Lester Davis. "There are a number of folks on the council who want to do what the council president wants to do, which is put more money in people's pockets. I don't think anyone knows which side is going to prevail.

"It's going to come down to the wire."

Baltimore does not have a minimum wage, but employers are subject to the state minimum. That rate rose to $8.75 an hour this month and will increase to $10.10 by 2018.

Baltimore is the latest jurisdiction nationwide to consider a minimum wage increase. Washington, Seattle and San Francisco all have approved increases to $15 an hour.

Montgomery County is considering a similar increase.

Advocates say raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would help working families make ends meet, giving them more money to spend and boosting local businesses.

But Young and others say they worry about how it would affect Baltimore's economy. They cite surveys of small businesses who say they would close or move if the wage is raised.

The council's labor committee attempted to address such concerns by narrowing the bill's focus. Members voted to exempt businesses with fewer than 25 employees or less than $500,000 in gross annual income.

The legislation, which also would exempt the Maryland Zoo and the city's YouthWorks program, moved out of the committee on a 4-0 vote.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she would sign the bill if it reaches her desk. Both Rawlings-Blake and Young have said they would prefer the state increased its minimum wage, so Baltimore wouldn't be requiring employers to pay higher rates than nearby suburban counties with lower tax rates.

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Advocates say they are watching how Young and councilmen Carl Stokes and Eric T. Costello vote. On questionnaires submitted to the AFL-CIO union during the primary campaign this year, each of the councilmen expressed at least partial support for increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour — yet each has expressed reservations about Clarke's proposal.

Asked in February whether he supported "raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for all workers in Baltimore by 2020?" Young answered "Yes, although I would prefer that the state of Maryland adopt a higher minimum wage for employees, I support raising the minimum wage."

Costello said "I fully support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour as long as it is implemented in a manner that does not negatively impact small businesses and their employees."

Stokes answered simply, "Yes."

Pat Lippold, the political director of the local Service Employees International Union, said unions feel misled by the politicians. She said she was particularly surprised by Young's move to weaken the bill to $11.50 per hour.

"We based our endorsement and our financial support on those answers," Lippold said. "I expect elected officials to honor their word. Jack stood with us at the press conference and he spoke to allies of his support. We're frustrated about that. He more often than not shares the values working families have."

Davis said Young's amendment represents a "huge increase to what's in people's paychecks."

Costello said he has reservations about the bill.

"I support a living wage for folks, but the city is already at a competitive disadvantage with the counties because of the property tax and bottle tax," he said. "I think this bill has great potential to have exactly the opposite effect of what people hope it will."

Stokes said in an interview that he would likely support Young's amendment.

"I know people need a sustainable wage," he said. "I know that the average worker who gets a stronger paycheck will juice the economy. But I don't want to be $4 or $5 dollars above everybody else."

Pro-business groups have opposed the legislation. The city's finance department has said it could cost Baltimore as much as $65 million per year. And the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm, has raised concerns.

In a survey of 322 Baltimore businesses, 97 said the bill would cause them to reduce hours for workers, 69 said they would lay off workers, 56 said they would close, and 33 said they would move out of Baltimore.

Clarke said she hoped the amendments passed by the labor committee would protect small businesses while helping workers.

"We're talking about thousands of households in this city that have fallen further and further behind," she said. "That hurts the whole city. That hurts the local economy. ...

"If enough cities act, states will act, including the state of Maryland, to bring us up to fair wages for all."

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