Government

Johnson County forges ahead quickly on initiative to raise minimum wage

But it's unclear whether localities can surpass state law

IOWA CITY — Entering Iowa's uncharted political and legal territory, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors outlined an aggressive timeline Wednesday that could bring a higher minimum wage to the county this year.

Supervisors said they hope to raise the state's $7.25 an hour minimum wage by 95 cents in each of three years — starting this winter — to $10.10 in Johnson County by 2017.

The proposed timeline, discussed at a board workshop session, would have the first of three required votes on the ordinance beginning next month, with the hope of implementing the first increase by Nov. 1.

Supervisor Rod Sullivan, who drafted the timeline, said the aggressiveness stems from a concern that not moving quickly could bring changes to Iowa law that would thwart the effort.

“If we don't follow the time frame that's up there, then it won't happen, is what I would say,” he said. “I think it's pretty clear what would happen with (the Statehouse) and the governor in Des Moines.”

After the board's discussion, Gov. Terry Branstad's office made clear it thinks any action on the minimum wage should come from the state — not localities.

“The governor believes that Iowa is best served by having a uniform minimum wage across the state,” said an email from spokesman Jimmy Centers.

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“Gov. Branstad signed a minimum-wage increase in the past. Should the Legislature pass a minimum-wage increase, Gov. Branstad would carefully review the bill in its final form,” Centers wrote.

Although other local jurisdictions in the nation have taken steps to increase the minimum wage — including Seattle and San Francisco — Johnson County's move is the first in Iowa to take it on and begs the question: Is that legal here?

“I don't think that's very clear,” Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said of the possibility of legal action against the county if the ordinance is passed. “We need to do more research on that and I couldn't guarantee you any outcome.”

A review of the Iowa Code doesn't reveal a specific prohibition against a county enacting a higher minimum wage than set by state law. But just how a court would interpret that is unknown.

“Sometimes those things simply have to be tested and they end up getting tested in court,” Alan Kemp, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities, said in an interview Wednesday. “I can tell you this: There is no bright line either way that says absolutely you can do or absolutely you have no authority, that you're pre-empted.”

Currently a countywide ordinance would allow municipalities within Johnson County — such as Iowa City, Coralville or North Liberty — the ability to opt out of its provisions.

“The county has the authority in some instances to pass an ordinance that impacts the interior of a municipality,” said Assistant County Attorney Andy Chappell. “If you were to pass an ordinance that applies within the municipalities of Johnson County, they would have the ability to basically pass a counter ordinance.”

The board, which doesn't want to surprise city officials, plans to send a notice next week to all councils.

Supervisor Pat Harney said the support of cities would increase the measure's effectiveness.

“I think we need their buy-in if we're trying to move forward with this,” he said.

The board also plans to host a public comment session on the ordinance.

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Dave Alatalo, president of Iowa City's RMB Co., a mechanical contractor, said he has no problem with increasing the minimum wage. But he is concerned it could benefit businesses located outside Johnson County that do work within the county.

“I would not want to see that situation be exacerbated with any type of ordinance, that's probably my primary concern at this point,” he said.

Enforcement is another question, he said.

“If you have a rule and you don't enforce it, then you don't have a rule.”

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