RURAL JOHNSON COUNTY — The nearby City of Solon is concerned about the impact of the recently passed county ordinance to raise the minimum wage. The city council doesn’t buy in, local businesses don’t buy in.
On Sept. 10, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors held the last of three readings of a new ordinance to raise the county minimum wage in $0.95 increments to $10.10 per hour by Jan. 1, 2017. The board passed the ordinance unanimously.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported the Solon city council is considering opting out of the new county minimum wage structure.
According to the Solon city administrator, the city council is considering just such an action.
An agenda of the council’s Sept. 2 meeting lists “discussion on minimum wage ordinance by Johnson County.” Draft minutes from the last council meeting, which have not been posted online, show council members unanimously voiced opposition to the county’s minimum wage ordinance. Local business owners also spoke out against it, saying they couldn’t afford raises for all of their employees while maintaining the same staff levels.
Doug Lindner of the Solon Economist recounted Mayor Steve Stange’s Sept. 2 survey of council members here. The council unanimously opposed raising the wage in Solon as laid out in the new ordinance.
City Attorney Jim Martinek was directed by Stange to review the proposed county law and research the city’s options and responsibilities, according to Lindner. Council is expected to take up the issue at its Sept. 16 meeting.
KCRG – TV9 interviewed local business owners Leo Eastwood and Sam Lensing in a news segment that aired Sept. 11.
Eastwood owns Eastwood’s Sports Bar and Grill. He is well known in the community and has placed political advertisements for favored Republican candidates at his place of business. His business recently moved from a strip mall at the edge of town to Main Street, where he joined a growing group of bars and restaurants in the city of 2,300 people.
“You’ve got to pass that along or you’re not going to be in business long,” Eastwood said to KCRG of a potential mandatory wage increase.
Lensing owns the most visible business on Main Street, Sam’s Main Street Market, a full service grocery store. Another of Lensing’s businesses, D & D Pizza, recently vacated its space across the street from the grocery store and Eastwood moved in.
Sam’s Main Street Market is and has been an important part of the community, sponsoring local events, collecting funds for the local food bank, and preventing the city from becoming a food desert for people with limited transportation.
“If this wage hike does increase that much where people have to raise their prices what’s it going to do for their business?” Lensing asked in the interview.
Sam’s Main Street Market competes with Fareway, Aldi, HyVee, Walmart and Costco. Because Solon is a bedroom community, people who commute to work have an easy option to buy groceries and sundries elsewhere. The convenience of his location brings customers willing to pay more rather than make a special trip to another town. KCRG didn’t report how many employees Lensing has at near minimum wage to validate his concern.
All of this seems like a tempest in a teapot, and here’s why.
The council’s concern, as reported by the news media, seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the minimum wage increase by a small number of business owners. The retail price increase a minimum wage increase may or may not require would have little impact in a community where the median household income is more than $62,000 per year — substantially higher than either the county-wide or state-wide figures. The argument about raising prices is a red herring.
How many low wage workers has the council heard from? I wasn’t at the meeting, but probably zero. In my experience covering council meetings for the Solon Economist I found councilors exercised a reasonable amount of diligence in matters like this. While the composition of the council has changed since I covered them, one hopes they will get feedback from Solon residents who work at or near the minimum wage in the city before opting out of the county ordinance. It is a voice not heard in this discussion to date.
There has been no public discussion of the impact on the Solon workforce of opting out. There are a lot of questions to be answered, including, how many near minimum wage jobs (earning below $10.10 per hour) would be affected? Where do Solon workers in near minimum wage jobs live? Would near minimum wage employees at Solon businesses seek employment at higher wages elsewhere as a result of the city opting out? How do near minimum wage workers in Solon get health insurance mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and at what cost to taxpayers? Has the city council read the ordinance to understand which businesses are required to comply and which are not? At present, there are no public answers.
As I wrote on Friday, the new county ordinance does little to address the underlying causes of poverty here. It turns out getting cities like Solon to buy in will be yet another delay in pursuit of social and economic justice.