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Higher minimum wage on agenda for Solon council’s Sept. 2 meeting

JOHNSON COUNTY– After many public meetings, a litany of stories of personal hardship, lengthy debate and an overwhelming push of public support, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the first reading of an ordinance that will raise the minimum wage countywide.
At its Aug. 27 meeting, the board voted 5-0 in favor of an incremental increase in Johnson County’s minimum wage, currently the same as the state’s wage of $7.25. By Nov. 1, employers must raise wages to $8.20, with a mandatory increase to $9.15 by May 1, 2016, and another increase to $10.10 by January 1, 2017. Beginning July 1, 2018, the wage would increase each year by an amount corresponding to the federally-reported Consumer Price Index (CPI).
The ordinance mirrors the State of Iowa’s minimum wage law, but makes noncompliance a county infraction and gives the Johnson County Attorney’s Office the power to enforce it along with the enforceability allowed under state code.
The board held a public forum Aug. 12 in front of a packed house at the Johnson County Health and Human Services building, where about 60 people came before the board to offer comments, mostly in support of the ordinance. Last week, nine people spoke in support of the increase during the board’s public hearing.
The only hesitance voiced before the formal vote came from Supervisor Terrence Neuzil, who read a prepared speech outlining his concerns.
“The timeline is incredibly aggressive,” Neuzil said. “That’s tough for businesses, particularly small businesses and daycares that have not anticipated such an increase.”
Neuzil said he also had grave concerns for the impact to nonprofit organizations that have salaries tied to Medicaid rules.
“Many of those organizations will have to somehow find a way to rearrange their business model in an already cash-strapped service industry,” Neuzil added.
Audience member Geoff Lauer, on behalf of nonprofit organizations he has worked with as part of the Iowa Advisory Council on Brain Injuries, supported the ordinance but shared Neuzil’s concerns.
“The Medicaid system is underfunded and in transition. Some of the providers, including Systems Unlimited, stand to try to accommodate a quarter million dollar adjustment when wages go up. That’s not a bad thing, but it puts them in the position of trying to find that money,” Lauer said. “I encourage you to help the community to understand that services to people with disabilities is their core mission.”
Lauer said change must happen at the state and federal levels, with local officials urging legislators to re-allocate funding to Medicaid-supported services and to “make sure we don’t put our nonprofits at the edge of survival where they might have to turn away some of the more challenging consumers,” he added.
Supervisor Pat Harney said he had heard from several business owners who had concerns about the impact of the wage increase, but since state and federal governments have historically taken no action on the issue, Harney felt it was time stop waiting.
“Iowa is grass roots and the county is grass roots,” said Harney. “I do have concerns for individual businesses that are struggling. But grass roots is the basis for change.”
Supervisor Mike Carberry echoed Harney’s frustration with state and federal government inaction, evoking memories from John F. Kennedy’s book, “Profiles in Courage.”
“When people are basing their business model on paying poverty wages, then they need to look at their business model. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past,” Carberry said. “This may be fast but if we don’t do it now, the state will step in, and try to preempt what we are doing here in January. We have to act now.”
Supervisor Rod Sullivan– who attended the meeting by telephone conference while his wife was undergoing critical surgery– dovetailed his very brief comments with Carberry’s.
“The idea of using courage when it comes to casting a vote in a nice comfortable chair, I’m not sure that works,” Sullivan said. “I think the person raising six children by herself on minimum wage is the real profile in courage.”
Another concern Neuzil raised was that the quick implementation of the law allowed little time for city governments to hear from their constituents on the issue.
“Forcing city councilors to accept this ordinance or not right before their election is no coincidence. And this aggressive timeline has given little chance for our community’s largest employer, the University of Iowa, to prepare for the change,” Neuzil said. “Instead it appears that they are trying to find ways to get out of adhering to our ordinance.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig responded with the most impassioned remarks, addressing the concerns Neuzil stated.
“Anyone who thinks there hasn’t been time or input on this, we’ve had seven public meetings on this topic and people have had time to talk to us,” Rettig said. She scorned what she called “political posturing” and other government officials’ refusal to lead.
“Those are dysfunctional bodies at the state and federal level because nobody will lead. So we are going to lead. There are a few people posturing: politicians, business owners, the University of Iowa getting their lawyers all lined up. I would ask them to look at someone making minimum wage and tell them this is worthy of political posturing while they can’t afford to pay their bills, get their kids to school, pay for their books, pay for their lunch, or anything else.”
Rettig said she was proud of Johnson County for stepping out on a limb to support those in need.
“If we can’t do that, we don’t deserve to be elected officials,” Rettig said. “I say bring it on if you disagree; sue us, do whatever it is that makes you feel good, because I will always be comfortable being on the side of people in poverty. And I will always hate politicians who split hairs and play games with people who need us.”
The unanimous vote brought a vigorous round of applause.
Most municipal governments in Johnson County have yet to conduct any formal discussion on the issue, but cities would have legal authority to pass their own ordinances keeping a lower minimum wage, as long as it does not go lower than the state’s.
The City of Solon placed the item on its Sept. 2 meeting agenda (subsequent to the publication of this newspaper).
“This will be the first discussion held on the issue so I don’t have a feel on the council’s position yet,” said Solon City Administrator Cami Rasmussen. “I expect the council will look at all aspects of the issue and make a decision in the near future.”
In Tiffin, City Administrator Doug Boldt said his council had not set time for formal discussion of the new ordinance.
“I don’t know when we are going to discuss it or how we might proceed,” Boldt said in an email communication this week. “I have been keeping an eye on this issue but only at a distance, because I know the county has some work left to do on it and has a couple more readings on it as well.”
The North Liberty City Council informally discussed the ordinance at its Aug. 11 meeting, with two councilors questioning the county’s legal authority to enact the ordinance countywide. Council member Brian Wayson said he felt it was not the county or city government’s role to determine how much employers should pay.
The ordinance must past two additional readings by the Board of Supervisors before adoption, expected to be held Sept. 3 and Sept. 10. If adopted, it will take effect Nov. 1.