A consistent Linn County minimum wage hike faces uphill climb

Many elected officials in Linn's largest cities have wage ideas of their own

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If Linn County’s supervisors want rules that consistently raise minimum wages across the county, they’ll need to sell the idea to a discordant audience.

Elected officials in the county’s three largest cities of Cedar Rapids, Marion and Hiawatha hold divergent opinions on a proposal floated this week by Board of Supervisors Chairman Ben Rogers to raise the current minimum of $7.25 an hour in phases to $10.25 an hour by 2019.

Among city council members who eventually could vote on the issue, opinions expressed this week varied from not favoring any increase to occurring with the idea to disagreeing on the amount — it’s either too little or too much money.

The three communities are home to about 173,000, or 80 percent, of the county’s more than 215,000 residents.

“It’s pretty critical to have the largest city and the surrounding cities not only sign on to it, but also with the increases, so you don’t have a different wage rates in different cities,” Rogers said.

To gather public input, the county will host a minimum wage forum from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s Beems Auditorium, 450 Fifth Ave. SE.

Rogers said he hopes to have an ordinance ready for discussion next Wednesday. If it passes all three required readings, it could be approved by the county still this month, he said.

If such an ordinance is approved, council members in each of Linn’s cities have a choice: Either do nothing — which means the city goes along with the county rules; or adopt a counter ordinance — which would mean keeping the current state rate or setting a different one.

Linn County supervisors say that latter scenario is one they hope to avoid — a hodgepodge of different wage requirements in different areas.

But that’s what has happened in Johnson County, which is nearing its third 95-cent increase to bring the county wage to $10.10 an hour.

Since that ordinance passed, a handful of small communities have adopted their own rules, resulting in different minimum wages.

As a member of a Linn County study group trying to reach consensus, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett spearheaded an $8.25-an-hour proposal.

He said this week he doesn’t have a problem if the suggested $10.25 step increase plan passes, as long as cities can opt out of the phases down the road. He wants an exemption for youth wages, but wouldn’t say if that would be a deal-breaker.

In interviews with The Gazette, Cedar Rapids City Council members detailed a variety of positions, with at least one opposed to any increase and another favoring more than the $10.25.

But most of the nine-member board appeared willing to support at least an initial increase to $8.25 an hour.

“I agree with Ron — I think $8.25 is going to be palatable,” said Susie Weinacht, who also served on the working group. “As far as $9.25 and $10.25, we will see what the future holds and if a future council supports that. I don’t think it is an unreasonable stretch goal, $3 in three years.”

Council member Kris Gulick also backs the $8.25. Council member Ralph Russell said he opposes raising the minimum wage, noting it wasn’t intended to be a subsistence-level wage.

“I won’t say never,” Russell said. “Someone may be able to convince me in the future, but right now I don’t support an increase.”

Council member Scott Olson favors the $10.25 step increase with an added requirement of indexing future increases to inflation — and also thought that whatever the increase is, it should be mandated without any opt-out provision to avoid competitive disparities between cities.

Council member Justin Shields called $8.25 “way too low” and said he instead prefers $13.

The Gazette was unable to reach all seven Marion City Council members, but at least three — Joe Spinks, Mary Lou Pazour and Paul Draper — expressed opposition to the proposal of an eventual $10.25.

Spinks and Pazour said they think $10.25 is too high, arguing Marion businesses would suffer.

“Looking at it at an entry viewpoint, that is a bit excessive,” Pazour said. “If you’re satisfied working at that job, than I would question how much motivation you have to move up.”

Several on Hiawatha’s City Council, including Aime Wichtendahl, who served on the working group, said they approve of the county’s plan.

“I’m going to support what the Board of Supervisors does with respect to $10.25. I think in the end it’s the best way to get the Legislature to do something and give them a clear goal of what to work toward rather than shoot for the lowest possible wage increase,” Wichtendahl said.

Council members Dick Olson and Denny Norton also said they support $10.25, while Marty Bruns said he wouldn’t fight against it.

Mayor Bill Bennett and council member Bob Rampulla said they’d like more research on the impact before deciding.

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