BANGOR, Maine — A proposal to increase wages for Bangor’s lowest-paid workers will likely live or die based on the results of the Nov. 3 City Council election, but a recent poll of candidates shows most oppose the idea.
The issue of a local minimum wage has loomed over the election since July when the council agreed to delay consideration of the proposed ordinance until Nov. 23.
Since then, the hotly contested political battle has attracted outside interest from statewide groups such as the Maine People’s Alliance, a liberal-leaning advocacy group, and the Maine Restaurant Association, a statewide organization that promotes the food industry.
“What we did was preserve the opportunity for the new councilors to weigh in on this and see where it goes,” City Councilor Joe Baldacci said last week.
Baldacci first proposed the local minimum wage in February. But he was unable to secure enough support to pass the ordinance under the council’s existing membership, with five councilors opposing it and four supporting it.
Supporters at the time were Councilors Gibran Graham, Sean Faircloth, Patricia Blanchette and Baldacci. Opponents were Councilors David Nealley, Pauline Civiello, Nelson Durgin, Josh Plourde and Ben Sprague.
Now — with three seats open on the council — the tally of councilors who are not stepping down or facing re-election is a 3-3 tie on the issue. Blanchette, who moved to Florida in July, is not eligible for re-election due to term-limit restrictions.
A recent poll of the city’s seven council candidates showed four in opposition, two in support, and one who said he is highly skeptical a local minimum wage could work logistically.
Here’s what candidates had to say when asked about the local minimum wage:
Gary Capehart opposes a local minimum wage increase, saying it would hurt local businesses and lead to job losses. The state or federal level is the proper place to increase the minimum wage, he says, in order to ensure a level playing field for all businesses.
Paul LeClair opposes a minimum wage increase, saying any increase in wages should be based on the workers’ performance, not the government. He called the proposed increase “another handout.”
David Nealley opposes raising the minimum wage at the local level, saying it would be chaotic doing business in Maine if every community implements a different minimum wage. Nealley supports a statewide increase, though, calling wages in the region “pathetic.”
Sarah Nichols supports raising the minimum wage, making the issue a central part of her campaign platform. “Making Bangor a place where everyone can succeed is my biggest priority right now,” she said.
William Osmer opposes the idea, saying it’s too soon for the council to consider a local minimum wage. While he supports a statewide increase, he thinks the council should wait to see the results of a 2016 referendum before taking up the issue.
Joseph Perry spoke in favor of increasing the minimum wage locally during a public hearing in July, but he now says he believes it would be logistically problematic. Perry supports raising the minimum wage on a statewide level.
Megan “Meg” Shorette supports raising the minimum wage at the local level, saying Augusta has already failed to do so. “To me, a living wage is part of a solution to a growing problem in our city,” she said.
That means it is likely both Nichols and Shorette must be elected for the minimum wage ordinance to pass in a 5-4 vote.
Asked about the responses, Baldacci said he is still “very hopeful,” adding that both Nichols and Shorette have excellent prospects for winning council seats and that he believes Perry is “persuadable.”
“I didn’t get into this because I thought it was going to be easy,” he said. “I got into it because it was the right thing to do.”
Perry responded Friday that he has “serious, serious concerns” about the logistics of a local minimum wage and that he remains “highly skeptical” it could work. He would not rule out the possibility entirely, though.
“I’m not going to be persuaded by Joe [Baldacci] lobbying me,” Perry said. “I’m going to be persuaded by facts in the final draft that alleviate my concerns.”
While Perry spoke in favor of a local minimum wage during a hearing in July, he said last week he also heard during that hearing — and agreed with — many legitimate concerns raised by business owners and opponents of a local minimum wage.
In particular, Perry raised concerns about the city’s ability to enforce such an ordinance and the logistics of companies trying to pay different wages based on where employees are working.
“It’s just an accounting nightmare,” he said.
Notably, if Nichols and Shorette both lose their election bids, it would leave the city with an all-male council.
Nealley — who opposes the local minimum-wage hike and is seeking re-election — predicted Friday that fact could help the two women at the polls, because some voters will want to keep female representation on the council.
What it does
As proposed, the ordinance would incrementally increase the local minimum wage from the statewide minimum of $7.50 per hour to $8.25 per hour in 2016, $9 per hour in 2017 and $9.75 per hour in 2018.
After that, the local minimum wage would fluctuate with the Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation.
The council still must address a number of clarifications and proposed amendments to the ordinance. Amendments proposed by councilors thus far would eliminate language exempting tipped workers, businesses with five or fewer employees and workers under the age of 18.
They would also clarify whether the ordinance should apply to all workers in Bangor or only to Bangor-based businesses. As written, the original draft presented would apply to all work conducted within the city limits, stating “(e)mployers shall include but not be limited to the City of Bangor.”
Baldacci said he will push first for a vote that includes the proposed amendments. He also said his intent was for the ordinance to apply only to Bangor-based businesses.
The Bangor proposal comes as the Maine People’s Alliance stumps for a citizen-initiated referendum in 2016 that would increase the minimum wage statewide to $9 per hour in 2017 and provide for an additional $1 extra per year until it reaches $12 per hour in 2020.
While Baldacci plans to push for his original proposal after the election, the council has yet to hold a work session to discuss a proposed compromise that would delay implementation of a local minimum wage until after voters consider the MPA referendum and implement the same pay increases proposed by the MPA.
Drafted by Plourde, that compromise failed to clear the council’s Business and Economic Development Committee in August. Baldacci asked that a public hearing before the full council be scheduled after the election.
While Baldacci is pushing his original proposal, which boosts Bangor wages sooner, he said Friday it is still possible the council will take up the compromise proposal after the election.
The Bangor wage proposal also comes after the Portland City Council voted in September to increase its minimum wage to $10.10 beginning in 2016 with future increases to follow.
Bangor’s wage battle has attracted outside interest to the upcoming council election from statewide groups.
Restaurateurs for a Strong Maine, a political action committee associated with the Maine Restaurant Association, contributed $250 to Nealley’s campaign.
Greg Dugal, president and CEO of the restaurant association, said that donation was based on Nealley’s opposition to the ordinance and his belief that any minimum wage increase should be a statewide or federal issue.
While Nealley opposes a local minimum wage, he supports a statewide or federal increase and voted in favor of a nonbinding council resolution expressing support for the MPA’s petition drive that seeks a statewide referendum to increase the minimum wage.
Meanwhile, the Bangor chapter of the Maine People’s Alliance endorsed Nichols based on her answers in an interview with chapter members and her responses to a questionnaire sent to all council candidates by MPA Campaign Vote!, a political action committee endorsed by the people’s alliance.
Nichols, a former volunteer for the MPA, said her platform was not influenced by the MPA endorsement, saying, “These are my values no matter what.”
Mike Tipping, communications director for the MPA, said he does not anticipate the PAC will contribute to Nichols’ campaign, but the roughly 3,000 MPA members in the Bangor area will be alerted and could work independently to support her election.
He said the endorsement was based on Nichols’ support of a livable wage, a strong public transportation system and her involvement in the community.
Nichols’ campaign finance report showed no contributions from the MPA or its political action committee as of Tuesday. No other Bangor council candidates received MPA endorsements.
Tipping said questionnaires were also sent to local candidates in other cities, including Lewiston and Portland.
While the MPA’s political action committee did not donate to Bangor candidates, it contributed a total of $2,150 to candidates in Lewiston’s mayoral and council elections, according to campaign finance reports filed through Sept. 30.
That included a $750 contribution to Lewiston mayoral candidate Ben Chin, who serves as political engagement director for the MPA, as well as contributions to council candidates Kristin Cloutier, Kristine Kittredge, Jim Lysen and Isobel Moiles.
Tipping said those contributions were primarily related to housing issues in Lewiston. The contributions left the PAC with a total of $9,282 in its coffers at the end of September.
He also said the MPA is more interested in local elections this year because more of the Legislature’s work is being conducted at the municipal level “because of our governor and because of some of the difficulty that he’s caused in getting things done in Augusta.”
Campaign finance reports show the PAC made no contributions to candidates in Portland this year.
According to Anthony Corrado Jr., a government professor at Colby College, it is not uncommon for statewide groups to get involved in local politics, particularly when they’re considering issues with statewide impact.
“It’s clearly the same issue but different politics,” he said, noting that political groups do not have to mobilize as many voters to affect local elections as they would statewide decisions.
Election Day for the City Council and school board races is set for Nov. 3, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center on Main Street.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter at @evanbelanger.