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Iowa City gives nod to first phase of minimum wage increase

Council members want comprehensive study of overall impact

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IOWA CITY — Iowa City’s elected leaders concurred Tuesday they should let the first phase of Johnson County’s higher minimum wage rule go into effect, meaning that the wage threshold will increase to $8.20 an hour next month in the county’s largest city.

That said, Iowa City Council members also expressed a strong desire to conduct a comprehensive analysis on the county wage ordinance’s impact on area employees, employers and non-profit organizations — something several council members said was severely lacking.

“I think it’s agreed that we should do an analysis. It should have been done before this was passed,” member Susan Mims said.

By doing nothing, the council allows the countywide ordinance to start to take effect in Iowa City. Its other option is to pass a counter ordinance setting a different minimum — or sticking with the current state and federal requirement of at least $7.25 — within city limits.

“I think everyone agrees at the moment that we should do nothing,” said Mayor Matt Hayek at an informal council work session.

Council members didn’t go into much discussion of their own opinions of the current minimum, but the majority appeared in support raising it.

Close to 30 residents, many of whom held a rally outside City Hall to push for a higher minimum wage, attended.

The council plans to pull local employers, non-profits, experts and others into the conversation to analyze the impact of such an ordinance on the community. If there is an impact, council members said, it will be more noticeable in the second and third phases of the increase, bringing the wage to $10,10 an hour by 2017.

While the topic likely will be broached with other municipalities at this month’s joint entities meeting, Iowa City Manager Tom Markus said he recommends keeping initial discussions within the city.

“My take is we have the capability to evaluate it ourselves, within our city, involving other people in the community,” Markus said.

Solon’s City Council passed an ordinance last month opting out of the county rule, sticking with $7.25. Swisher is expected to discuss a similar ordinance soon.

The North Liberty City Council is scheduled to discuss the minimum wage Thursday during a special work session. Coralville’s council has not had a formal discussion on the issue.

Iowa’s minimum wage was last increased in 2008 from $5.15. Recent attempts in the Iowa Legislature to raise it have failed, which helped prompt Johnson County to take action itself.

The ordinance it passed will raise the wage threshold in the county in increments until 2017, with the wage then tied to a price index.

The first phase takes effect in November when it rises by 95 cents.

A glaring question about the ordinance remains its legality.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on Iowa City Attorney Eleanor Dilkes’s opinion that a local minimum wage ordinance would not survive if challenged in court.

In response to a City Council request last month to look into the county ordinance, Dilkes said she does not feel a local minimum wage ordinance would withstand a challenge because of an exception to the county’s home rule authority.

The exception has to do with when counties can and cannot enact laws governing civil relationships that include a wage ordinance. But opinions of the provision differ, and so far it has been untested in Iowa appeal courts.

“I think it’s going to be a tough sell with the Iowa Supreme Court,” Dilkes said Tuesday, adding that the court does not factor whether a wage increase is the right or wrong public policy, but whether it follows state code.

Many have agreed, including the Johnson County Board of Supervisors and County Attorney Janet Lyness, that it will come down to litigation to truly test the ordinance, which is the first of its kind in the state.

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