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Ventura County Postpones 'Living Wage' Vote

Pay: Supervisors delay action on the issue to allow more time for business leaders to comment.

April 25, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

County supervisors put off voting Tuesday on an ordinance that would guarantee raises to some of the county's lowest-paid workers, but a majority still appears to favor approval of the law.

The board unanimously agreed to postpone its decision for two weeks to allow more public comment on the so-called "living wage" proposal. Supervisors did so at the request of several chamber of commerce leaders who wished to air their objections to the ordinance but were unable to attend Tuesday's meeting because of a conference in Sacramento.

"All thoughts need to be heard and all thoughts need to be considered before we make a decision," said Supervisor Judy Mikels.

Mikels and Supervisor Frank Schillo have said they are opposed to the higher wage standard. The three other supervisors, Steve Bennett, John Flynn and Kathy Long, have expressed tentative support.

If the ordinance is passed, any county contract of $25,000 or more must include an $8-an-hour wage for employees, plus benefits, or $10 an hour without benefits. The proposal seeks to lift workers above the poverty level, about $16,450 for a family of four. About a quarter of Ventura County's 753,000 residents live below the poverty line, according to "living wage" advocates.

Many proponents in the audience shook brightly colored signs in support of speakers endorsing the wage standard. They pushed for a vote Tuesday, arguing that supervisors had already postponed the matter in December. At that time, the board indicated it would vote in 90 days.

The two-week postponement falls short, however, of the May or June vote that county Chief Administrative Officer Johnny Johnston was pushing for. He argued that the issue should be addressed during budget negotiations. An analysis by Johnston's office estimates the ordinance could cost the county an extra $1.2 million annually, with contractors passing along the higher cost of employee wages. The cost also includes raises for current county workers who fall below the $8 minimum.

With a looming $7.3-million shortfall in the county's budget, Johnston has said supervisors cannot afford the change without cutting elsewhere. That argument was cited by Mikels, who said the public is looking to supervisors to make tough budget decisions after a series of financial setbacks over the last two years.

"This board has been taken to task and ripped wide open for our lack of fiscal responsibility," she said. "This board has the obligation to understand the impact and where the impact is."

Schillo, attending his first meeting since undergoing heart surgery in March, agreed with Mikels.

"The money has to come from somewhere," Schillo said. "And I don't think we know where it's going to come from."

"Living wage" supporters questioned the numbers supplied by Johnston's office, arguing that other locales with similar wage ordinances, such as Los Angeles and Baltimore, saw no significant fiscal impact because much of the cost was absorbed by the contractors.

"Every time we bring up . . . living-wage proposals at a local level, there are those that assert that, basically, the sky will fall down," said advocate Das Williams. "I am here to tell you the sky will not fall down."

But Long and Bennett acknowledged that the wage standard would probably have some cost effect. Still, they were not willing to wait for budget talks before voting. Long asked colleagues for the two-week delay, long enough for the chamber leaders to return. The postponement also gives Johnston's staff time to research some outstanding questions, including how much it would cost to include annual cost-of-living increases.

Johnston was also instructed to find out how much it would cost to include in-home service workers, who assist about 2,000 elderly county residents. The current draft of the ordinance does not include them, even though many make less than $8 an hour. Chief Deputy Administrative Officer Marty Robinson said that including them could add another $1.7 million to $4.3 million to the wage standard's annual cost.

Despite the delay, Marcos Vargas, co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition, called Tuesday's meeting a victory because the issue was not folded into the budget process, "where it might not have survived."

"I believe we have the support of the board, and we will have a living-wage ordinance in short order," Vargas said.

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