More disagreement at Linn County minimum wage forum

Linn County could vote this month on proposal to increase threshold

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Some panelists at a discussion Thursday evening about the minimum wage agreed on one thing: If the wage requirement goes up, people in Linn County will feel it.

Whether the consequence is good or bad remains up for debate.

The public forum in downtown Cedar Rapids, which drew about 60 people, is one part of the county’s efforts to solicit opinions before taking a vote on the issue, which could come this month.

Linn County Board of Supervisors Chairman Ben Rogers — who this week unveiled a plan to increase the countywide minimum by $1 a year for three years starting Jan. 1 — said at the forum Thursday his proposal was crafted to be simple but effective.

“A three-year period gives businesses time to anticipate what their labor costs would be and be able to change their business models,” he said, noting that the lowest wage was not a livable wage. “Raising the minimum wage has quality of life implications. ... There really is a ripple effect in terms of helping people help themselves.”

Panelists Rogers, Iowa Policy Project Research Director Peter Fisher, business owner Richard Pankey and wage study group member Sofia Mehaffey fielded questions from the public on the proposal. The forum was hosted by the county with assistance from the Linn County League of Women Voters.

Pankey, who said he employs about 200 people among seven restaurants that include Riley’s Cafe and Butcher Block Steakhouse locations, also said he anticipates such an increase to have a ripple effect — on consumers.

He estimates an increase could add 50 cents to a $10 burger.

“If there’s an increase — let’s say it’s an increase of 10 percent on average — that’s another $15,000 to $17,000 per month we would have to absorb,” he said. “We simply don’t have that kind of margins in the restaurant business.”

Rogers’s proposal, which is being drafted into ordinance form, would bring the minimum wage in the county from $7.25 an hour to $10.25 by January 2019.

The proposal would need approval from the full five-member board to be adopted. And cities in the county could decide to go along with it, or adopt some other rule including sticking with the state’s current $7.25.

Rogers’ proposal came a few months after Linn County’s board-appointed minimum wage working group recommended supervisors raise the minimum to $8.25 in January 2017. The recommendation — spearheaded by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett — included a caveat that the group would push lawmakers for a statewide increase and reconvene again after next year’s legislative session.

Although Johnson County has adopted rules to eventually bring the wage there to $10.10 an hour, the Legislature has shown little interest in taking statewide action.

In 2015, the Democrat-led Iowa Senate voted 27-22 to boost the state’s minimum to $8.75 an hour. But Republicans, who control the Iowa House, did not it take up.

Mehaffey, who said she once earned minimum wage as a teenage mother, expressed frustrations over how te study group ended.

“In my opinion, that vote was hasty, I think more time and thought should have gone into it,” she said. “I think that was very unfortunate because I think this deserves much more attention.”

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