Local minimum wage setting is a bad idea

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 11/13/19

On the surface, it may seem like a good idea to allow each local municipality to have the authority to raise the minimum wage in its community. We all know how living costs in the Denver metro area …

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Local minimum wage setting is a bad idea


On the surface, it may seem like a good idea to allow each local municipality to have the authority to raise the minimum wage in its community.

We all know how living costs in the Denver metro area and other areas like the mountain ski areas have soared especially because of housing costs. Furthermore, we know that we cannot build enough “affordable” housing to solve the gap between minimum wage earners and rental housing which they can afford.

However, to have each city government initiate its own minimum wage plan could create economic chaos.

Municipalities empowered to raise
minimum wage rates

The Democrat-controlled state legislature passed a bill which Governor Polis signed into law earlier this year giving City Councils the latitude to adjust the minimum wage above the State’s level.

Effective January 1, the state’s minimum wage goes to $12.00 per hour. The state’s phased-in increases were approved by Colorado voters.

With the powers given municipalities by legislators, the City and County of Denver has already jumped in with a proposal to raise the hourly wage to $13.80 per hour on January 1 and then climb to $15.87 per hour in 2021. Mayor Michael Hancock and Councilwoman Robin Kniech have been spearheading the drive since September, but no formal action taken to date.

Potential lawsuit may slow Denver’s proposal

Denver city officials are attempting to rush their public comment and stakeholder input timeline so that the necessary ordinance can be adopted before January 1 to create a smooth transition with the higher wage.

In the meantime, the Colorado Restaurant Association is threatening legal action if Denver moves forward on this authorization.

If a city government is to embark on raising the minimum wage beyond the state’s level, it totally warrants a thoughtful and thorough education and comment process with a generous amount of time provided. The impact on local businesses can be significant. This especially pertains to restaurants, convenience stores, businesses which hire a lot of youth, some grocery stores and a lot more businesses. So, an appropriate lead time to implement an increase in wages is paramount to allow adequate planning and adjustments such as adjusting menu prices, hours of work for each employee and more.

In a nutshell, how is the business owner/manager going to adjust the operating income and expenses to be balanced?

Unhealthy competition among neighboring municipalities

The new state law was perhaps a noble idea to improve the plight of minimum wage earners. Clearly, such wage earners cannot adequately live on $12.00 per hour in the Denver area. However, the legislature made a big mistake in letting every Colorado city council to play economist. It sets the stage for a potential unhealthy competition.

For example, let’s say the Denver City Council does implement their increased minimum wage plan: That creates an overnight competition between Denver employers and suburban employers on a regional scale.

Hey, if I am making $12.00 per hour waiting tables in Westminster and Denver restaurants are paying $13.80 per hour, I would have to give serious thought to working in Denver. You can see the pattern.

Then let’s take it a step further. Let’s say Aurora City Council jumps the minimum wage in their city to $14.50 per hour. Now, employees working in Denver and the rest of the region will perhaps be enticed to jump to Aurora.

Regional approach makes more sense

What really should have been authorized by the state legislators was the authority to raise the minimum wage on a regional basis. For example, take the Denver metro area (the eight county area) and establish a minimum wage for ALL affected employees and businesses in the region.

Another obvious example would be the mountain ski towns. A defined regional area could be established in the law which allows Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge etc. to formulate a regional plan. As part of the plan, a defined process with adequate time for stakeholder input should be required.

Hey, I have always been an advocate for home rule and local decision-making. However, not every policy under the sun should be left to individual towns or cities.

Survey results confirm citizens’ concerns about growth

In October, Westminster staff released the results of their 2019 Westminster Forward outreach campaign, which ended September 30th. Highlights were posted on the city’s website under “News.”

It addressed the six key plans city staff is currently updating which supposedly guides the city’s growth and capital expenditures. They consist of the Comprehensive Plan (land use and density), Parks, Recreation and Libraries Plan, Sustainability Plan, Transportation and Mobility Plan, Unified Development Code and Water Supply Plan.

A total of 463 responses were received and tabulated - pretty meager for a city of 113,000 people.

The results clearly document what I have been saying about too much growth, too many apartments, not acquiring more open space and maintaining a reliable water supply.

Current City Council members and the city staff should NOT have been surprised with these findings. With the new city council now seated, will the majority of them heed the findings and direct the city manager and his staff to change course regarding future city growth and acquisition of open space?

A summary of citizens’ responses

If you missed the highlights on the city website, I will give you a quick synopsis.

Participants were asked to respond to questions and provide rankings. Ensuring long-term water availability clearly was the most important issue to the participants. On the question of what could Westminster do to help the natural environment, major responses were limit growth, preserve open space, use native plants, xeriscaping and recycle.

Traffic congestion was the highest response among pre-selected choices on the question of what are the biggest transportation/mobility challenges. Finally, on the question of most important considerations on the future of Westminster, a reliable water supply was a clear number one. Transportation/access and parks and amenity space came in numbers two and three.

With a clear picture, what will the city do now?

While the survey was far from a scientific instrument, it provided clear insight on residents’ concerns with accelerated growth, an over-abundance of apartment developments, a desire for more open space and above all, a reliable water supply.

When you stop and think about it, these all tie together. Spreading out new development over time would assure protecting the water supply while giving more time to secure additional water resources. It would buy time for the city to mount a way to fund more road improvements to cope with the congestion.

Acquiring additional open space would produce more elbow room and give us all some breathing room while reducing the potential for more development on the remaining limited vacant land.

So, the picture is clear. What will our city leaders do with the results of their own survey and process?

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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