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Advocates, opponents scramble for votes on $15 minimum wage in Baltimore

Councilman Stokes says he is firmly against voting for a $15 minimum wage, putting passage in jeopardy.

Supporters and opponents of increasing Baltimore's minimum wage to $15 an hour are scrambling to line up votes less than a week before the City Council is scheduled to make a final decision on the proposal.

City Councilman Carl Stokes — who abstained when the council took an initial vote on the legislation Monday — said Tuesday he will not vote for the bill, saying Baltimore should not be "$4 or $5" ahead of the rate employers are required to pay workers elsewhere in Maryland.

The state minimum wage increased to $8.75 an hour last month en route to $10.10 an hour by 2018.

"I do not think it's the right number at the right time," Stokes said of the proposed $15 minimum.

His position leaves the bill at least one vote short of the eight it needs to pass next week. Two other members of the council also abstained Monday, and Councilman James B. Kraft — who was absent — has previously said he would vote against the legislation. Seven council members voted for the proposal and four voted against it.

The bill calls for the minimum wage paid in Baltimore to increase to $9.50 an hour next July, with $1 raises thereafter until reaching $13.50 in 2021. It would jump to $15 an hour in 2022 and after that would rise with the cost of living.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chief sponsor of the measure, began lobbying her colleagues immediately after Monday evening's vote. Business advocates worked the opposite angle Tuesday, with one group urging its members to call council members to voice their opposition.

The legislation exempts businesses with fewer than 25 workers and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income from paying the proposed minimum wage.

Still, some say the measure would be detrimental to business in Baltimore.

John Danko, who runs his family's 96-year-old aircraft supply company, Danko Arlington Inc., said the proposed minimum wage would put him out of business and leave 67 other workers in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood out of work.

He has written council members, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — who has said she would sign the legislation — and others pleading for them not to pass the bill.

"We come to work every day and do our jobs, and to have the City Council force us to close is so misdirected, so shortsighted," said Danko. He said he would have to increase his current sales volume by 50 percent to cover payroll costs if the minimum wage rose to the proposed level.

"We couldn't even afford to stay in business after 2022, our 102nd year."

Clarke said the local push for a higher minimum wage is part of a national effort to "address the growing gap between the working wealthy and the working poor." She wants to convince her colleagues on the council that cities such as Baltimore must act or risk that gap expanding.

Washington, San Francisco and Seattle are among the cities that have approved a $15 minimum wage in recent years. Montgomery County is considering a similar increase.

"Give us a chance of being part of bringing this city together in terms of economic equality and self-reliance," Clarke said. "Give people a chance to work hard and support their families."

She said the vast majority of Baltimore businesses would be exempt.

Citing federal census survey data from 2014, the most recent numbers available, she said 83 percent of city-based businesses would be exempt from paying the higher minimum wage because they have fewer than 25 workers.

Business groups say that number is inflated because it does not account for companies with multiple locations that are treated as franchises in the bill. Those companies would be required to pay the higher wage if their combined number of workers is greater than 25, even if they have a small number of employees at each location.

It is unclear how many workers would be affected.

An analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington projected that the legislation would increase wages for 98,000 employees, or 27 percent of Baltimore workers. That projection was based on an earlier version of the bill that eventually guaranteed full minimum wage to bartenders, waiters and others who work for tips.

Under the latest version of the bill, those workers would see their minimum hourly base pay increase from about $3.65 to $5.

Councilman Brandon Scott, who supports increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, said he has heard from many business owners with concerns, and has found some do not know that many small businesses wouldn't be required to pay the proposed new rate.

He also has tried to convey to them that the $15 minimum wage wouldn't be fully phased in for six years, at which time the higher rate could be the statewide or national norm.

Donald C. Fry, president of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, is continuing an aggressive campaign against the legislation. The group sent an email blast Tuesday, calling on people to petition council members to vote no.

"This is not in the best interest of the residents of Baltimore City," Fry said. "This is not a good step forward for job creation in the city."

Fry said businesses would lay off workers, cut salaries and benefits where possible or automate jobs, such as in the fast food industry, which is experimenting with replacing clerks with touch screens.

A $15 minimum wage also would encourage workers living elsewhere to apply for city jobs, potentially leading to a higher unemployment rate in Baltimore.

Fry also pointed to the impact on the city's finances: The bill is projected to cost Baltimore $145 million in increased worker pay by 2023.

"This would place Baltimore City at a competitive disadvantage, saddling the next mayor and City Council with a significant bill that they have not expected on top of any other challenges city government experiences," Fry said.

Rawlings-Blake has said little on the subject. She is expected to sign the bill, if it makes it to her desk, although she has said she would prefer the General Assembly adopt a higher state minimum wage.

Clarke said she is turning her focus to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. She wants to persuade him to back the bill and argued that the measure was amended to address many of his concerns.

Young joined council members Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Eric T. Costello and Warren Branch in voting against Clarke's bill.

Voting for it were council members Robert Curran, Bill Henry, Sharon Green Middleton, Nick J. Mosby, Edward Reisinger, Clarke and Scott.

Stokes, William "Pete" Welch and Helen Holton abstained.

Young pushed for an alternative plan. He wanted to raise the rate to $11.50 an hour, a compromise he said he might push for when the bill comes to the council for a final vote Monday.

Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said Tuesday the council president was unwilling to vote for a $15 minimum wage.

"The council president would support an increase to the minimum wage in a second," Davis said. "That's why he fought hard for a compromise and offered an alternative of $11.50. He is not open to supporting a $15 minimum wage."

Holton said Tuesday she has too many concerns about Clarke's bill, such as how increased competition from outside the region could squeeze city workers out of jobs. She prefers statewide action, but would "vote for $11.50 over $15."

"In concept, in theory, it's a wonderful idea, but you have to pick and choose those times when you want to step out and force the state to do what it's not prepared to do," she said Monday.

Welch did not explain his vote to abstain from the council floor Monday and did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Clarke said she continues to be hopeful in her campaign to find an eighth council member in support of the $15 proposal.

"It's always possible," she said.

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