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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Supervisors Set to Back Living Wage Ordinance

County: Steve Bennett joins two other board members in supporting the proposed law. Foes warn contractors will pass on costs to taxpayers.

April 15, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After months of lobbying from labor groups, a majority of county supervisors is poised to support an ordinance requiring county contractors to pay their employees a "living wage."

Supervisors John Flynn, Steve Bennett and Kathy Long say they support a law that would require employees to be paid at least $8 an hour, plus health benefits, or $10 an hour without. Calling it a "social justice issue," the supervisors say it will pull working families out of poverty and wean them from government services.

The support of Bennett, a Democrat who was elected in November, virtually assures the ordinance will be approved when it comes before the five-member Board of Supervisors. Flynn and Long had previously voiced their strong support.

The issue pits the board's liberals against fiscal conservatives Frank Schillo and Judy Mikels. Schillo and Mikels oppose the proposed law, warning it would ultimately mean higher costs for the county because contractors would pass along the increase through higher prices. And more money on contracts means less money for programs that benefit the poor, they say.

"I want to know from the rest of the board where they think the money is coming from," said Schillo, who, although recovering from heart surgery, promises to attend the April 24 board meeting when the issue is scheduled for a vote. "When you take a million out of a budget, it's subtracting a million from somewhere else. So what other service are we not going to provide?"

A chief administrator's office survey of county contractors estimates the ordinance could cost an additional $1.9 million a year for contracts, which cover services such as security, janitorial, landscaping and pest control. And that is money the county does not have, said Chief Administrative Officer Johnny Johnston, who is faced with closing a projected $7.3-million shortfall in this year's budget.

"We've got a billion-dollar budget," Johnston said. "But we've already committed all of it, plus $7 million. I'm neither for [the living wage] or against it. But it is a new purchase and we are struggling to pay for the purchases we have."

The requirement would only apply to contracts worth more than $25,000 and would exempt subsidies and leases, such as those held by struggling tenants at the county-operated Channel Islands Harbor.

Supervisors will also have to find extra money to cover raises for the county's own part-time and low-skill workers, as many as 130 whose earnings hover around the state minimum wage of $5.75 an hour. That cost could make up as much as $315,000 of the $1.9-million cost, according to county estimates.

Officials also anticipate the raises could have a ripple effect, resulting in higher wages for low-level supervisors who otherwise could suddenly be earning the same wage as their underlings.

Johnston, who met last week with Marcos Vargas, chairman of the Ventura County Living Wage Coalition, said he plans to recommend that supervisors put off a decision until budget negotiations in June, when board members decide which programs to fund.

Vargas, however, said he is skeptical the cost will be as high as county officials suggest, arguing many contractors are trying to protect their own interests by estimating the steepest increases possible.

And, he adds, whatever money is spent on contract increases will be made up through fewer demands on social services, such as health care for the uninsured.

"They will find the benefits outweigh the cost," Vargas said.

Vargas' coalition, made up of 40 community, labor and faith-based groups, has made its case hard for supervisors to ignore. Coalition members frequently attend board meetings, filling the room with florescent-colored signs that read: "I Vote and I Support a Living Wage."

During public comment sessions, they tell board members it is their moral obligation to ensure the working poor can afford food, medicine and clothing for their families.

It was unclear where Bennett would weigh in on the issue after he was elected with the support of labor but vowing to control spending. But last week, Bennett, a former high school principal in Ojai, said he has sympathy for the working poor.

"I spent quite a bit of time watching single parents come in trying to support two or three kids on not much more than minimum wage and it really did affect me," Bennett said. "If there's anybody I want to help most it's people who want to work but just aren't making enough to support themselves."

Long added: "I think we can agree this is a cost, but it's well worth that cost."

Advocates of a living wage have been making their case to local governments across the nation. Fifty-three counties and cities have approved similar ordinances and 80 more are pending. Los Angeles County and city have passed such a law and a community coalition in Santa Barbara is asking for what could be the highest rate in the state so far, $11 an hour.

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