BANGOR, Maine — Less than a week after City Councilor Joe Baldacci proposed increasing the minimum wage in Bangor, some City Council members are questioning the logistics of the proposal.
Defending his draft ordinance this week, Baldacci described the plan as a critical step toward increasing the minimum wage for workers statewide.
“It’s not just about the local minimum wage. It’s about creating a grass-roots movement so that there’s a campaign to put the minimum wage on the ballot and have it pass statewide,” he said.
“Considering the fact that we’re not going to get any changes in Augusta or Washington, I think it’s important,” he said.
But councilors were cautious when questioned about the proposal, most reserving judgment until they can discuss the ordinance with Baldacci and city staff and some expressing early concerns about the proposal.
In an email to the Bangor Daily News this week, Councilor David Nealley described the proposal as “an issue that belongs at the federal and state level of government” — a statement Council Chairman Nelson Durgin called “a valid concern.”
Councilor Josh Plourde said he would keep an open mind on the issue, but he also said he is “not a fan of a couple of items” in Baldacci’s model, such as exempting workers under the age of 18.
Plourde voiced concern that it could place Bangor at a competitive disadvantage economically.
“I think if the whole region were on board for a local mandate, I would be very much open to that, but if we’re an island all to ourselves, than I think that would be a very logistically heavy issue,” he said.
Similarly, Councilor Ben Sprague proposed adding language to the proposal that would only allow it to take effect if every community contiguous to Bangor also raised its minimum wage.
“That way there would be consistency,” he said.
Councilor Pauline Civiello proposed last week pairing the minimum wage proposal with a council action that would make Bangor a right-to-work city where workers cannot be compelled to join unions to take certain jobs.
Baldacci’s ordinance, proposed last week, would hike the minimum wage in Bangor from $7.50 per hour to $8.25 per hour beginning next year.
By 2018, it would increase the minimum wage in Bangor to $9.75 per hour and provide for future increases to reflect inflation.
According to Assistant City Manager Bob Farrar, Bangor’s city government employed 12 part-time seasonal temporary workers last year who were paid the minimum wage and 183 who earned less than the eventual $9.75 minimum proposed by Baldacci.
None of those were permanent part-time workers, he said. Many worked in summer maintenance, camps and lifeguard jobs for the parks department. Depending on the season, he said, the city can employ between 150 and 250 part-time seasonal temporary workers.
That statistic led Sprague to propose the council delay action on Baldacci’s proposal until the city can take care of its own workers.
“If we believe in higher wages, let’s start at home and make the change and then, further down the road, we can look at something citywide,” he said.
But Baldacci countered that idea, saying he proposed increasing wages for the lowest-paid city employees during a workshop last year and most of council members were not interested.
Calling Sprague’s proposal “a good gesture,” he said it was not a reason to delay action on his minimum-wage proposal.
“I think we need to do more than that at this point,” he said.
Other councilors said they are eager to talk to Baldacci and city staff to determine where they stand on the issue.
“As someone who has been in that place in life a lot, I am, in general, very supportive of there being a minimum wage increase,” said Councilor Gibran Graham. “The idea of that on a municipal level, I don’t know, so I’m waiting to hear back from our staff.”
“I’m not sure I’m clear about what he’s going to accomplish, so I really don’t have an opinion on it one way or the other until I talk to him,” said Councilor Patricia Blanchette.
Councilor Sean Faircloth said, in the absence of meaningful progress to increase the minimum wage either statewide or nationally, he supports Baldacci’s proposal.
“I feel like Councilor Baldacci has offered an appropriate response to current reality,” he said.
Some business owners also are speaking out about Baldacci’s proposal. Michael Bazinet, president of Creative Digital Imaging in Bangor, said the proposal does not consider the impact on businesses that already pay more than minimum wage.
While he has no problem with a state or federal minimum wage increase that would make everyone “play by the same rules,” the proposal could make it more expensive to hire new employees, he said.
Over time, Bazinet said, the increasing minimum wage will “degrade our starting wage,” forcing the company to increase its starting pay for new hires from more than $10 per hour to perhaps $12 to $13 per hour.
Bazinet’s business has grown from four to more than 40 employees over the past 15 years as a provider of secure mailing and Web invoice statements. Its annual payroll exceeds $1.7 million, according to Bazinet.
“We gladly pay our taxes because we like being in this community. We enjoy the city services,” he said.
“What I start to have a problem with is when the the city government tries to turn into big government, and I just don’t think that’s the right way we should be doing it,” he said.
Baldacci described the pay hikes as “relatively modest increases” designed to take the business community into consideration.
“If we go along and don’t have an increase in the minimum wage, I think that actually hurts the economy, because that actually keeps wages down in general,” he said.
Baldacci’s proposal exempts employers from paying the increased minimum wage to workers who receive tips as part of their earnings as well as unpaid interns working for academic credit.
It also exempts small businesses with four or fewer employees and employees under the age of 18.
Mike Tipping, communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance, a left-leaning advocacy group that is pushing state lawmakers to increase the minimum wage, said municipal ordinances like Baldacci’s help bolster momentum for the movement.
The alliance said it could pursue a citizen-initiated referendum in 2016 that would allow voters to decide the issue if the Legislature and the governor’s office can’t agree on an increase this session.
Baldacci, brother to former Maine Gov. John Baldacci, said last week he is proposing the minimum-wage hike because Maine’s lowest paid workers have gone nearly six years without a pay increase and because income levels have been “stagnant for over a decade.”
He is tentatively seeking public forums in March or April to discuss the issue. He said he is planning for a large venue to maximize public input.
During a pre-council meeting Monday, the council heard advice from legal counsel that issues of statewide interest such as the minimum wage typically would be discussed by the full council prior to a public forum.
Baldacci, who was on temporary medical leave during the meeting, said he has no problem with the process as long as there is adequate public notice and it does not prevent the public from speaking out on the issue.
With Baldacci’s proposal, Bangor becomes at least the fourth Maine city to discuss openly the possibility of a local minimum wage in the wake of failed legislative attempts to adopt a statewide increase.
Portland, South Portland and Augusta have had similar discussions in recent months.
The proposals come as more municipalities enact their own minimum wages. In June, Seattle’s City Council approved increasing the minimum wage there to $15 an hour by 2018. Other cities to enact minimum wage ordinances include Santa Fe, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
In Oklahoma, a law enacted last year barred municipalities from raising the local minimum wage.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.