Prince George’s County Council puts off vote on minimum wage bill

November 19, 2013

Prince George’s County law­makers on Tuesday deferred a vote on a bill that would raise the minimum wage to at least $11.50 an hour by 2016.

While there appeared to be widespread support on the County Council for the bill, members said they wanted to wait to see whether a similar measure passes this month in Montgomery County. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has said he is concerned that raising the minimum wage would put the county, which has struggled to attract retailers, at a competitive disadvantage.

The bill was among more than two dozen addressed Tuesday as the Prince George’s County Council held its annual end-of-session meeting.

Most of the bills, which included an initiative to use clean energy in public buildings, a crackdown on public nuisances and support for more urban farms, were passed Tuesday with little debate.

But the minimum-wage proposal drew more than two dozen people to the meeting, including several from the hospitality industry who said the measure would hurt local businesses. Currently, Maryland law requires that covered employees be paid $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage.

Before Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) announced that the council would reconvene in a special session by Nov. 30 to vote on the wage increase, several council members expressed support for the measure.

Harrison, the bill’s chief sponsor, said it is the council’s duty to help address poverty and serve the county’s working poor.

“This is an economic justice issue, and it is long overdue,” council member Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) said.

Baker has said he wants to leave the matter to the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for statewide action next year.

It is unclear whether Baker will veto the legislation if it is approved.

David Iannucci, a top economic development aide to Baker, said the council’s decision to delay the vote until it is clear what Montgomery County will do was a wise move.

Baker’s “position continues to be support for a statewide approach,” Iannucci said, saying that a regional approach would be next best thing. “By ourselves, it will be a great risk to the Prince George’s County economy.”

In October, officials from the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s announced an effort to increase the minimum wage to at least $11.50 an hour by 2016, with future increases indexed to inflation.

The collaborative effort is meant to address widening income inequality.

A Montgomery County Council committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on its minimum-wage bill Thursday, and the full council is expected vote Nov. 26. In the District, the council could vote as early as next month.

Small-business owners and several business groups in Prince George’s said the bill comes as businesses are recovering from the recession and struggling to make profits while also having to comply with the Affordable Care Act.

They said the measure would cause the loss of jobs and the closure of small businesses.

“This is the cement brick that is going to be pulling us down,” said Karen Murray, owner of TJ’s of Calverton Restaurant in Beltsville.

“At $11.50 an hour, these unskilled workers will be making more money per hour than I do. . . . What we are saying here today isn’t so we can deprive folks from earning a living, but we are just trying to make a living too.”

Workers’ advocates urged the council to lead the state in raising the minimum wage.

“The cost of living in Maryland is so high, somebody has to step in and do the right thing, whether it is at the state level or at the county level. It has to happen,” said Sarah Martinez, a lawyer with CASA of Maryland.

The council approved legislation setting a goal of using 10 percent of the county’s $50 million economic development fund, created two years ago, to stimulate small businesses owned by county residents.

Two bills addressing public nuisances expanded the county’s powers to deal with loitering, prostitution, drug use and the storage of illegal weapons or contraband in vacant properties. The existing Nuisance Abatement Board will be able to follow up on complaints and hold property owners responsible.

The board will also be able to take action against property owners cited for loud parties or other disruptive activities, a particular concern of residents in College Park. The University of Maryland recently expanded its jurisdiction to police off-campus parties, a move credited with improving neighborhood relations with students.

Urban farmers received a nod of approval; residents of multifamily developments built before 1990 can now use their land to cultivate fruits and vegetables.

County firefighters and police received raises from new two-year collective bargaining agreements passed Tuesday.

Police can expect roughly 3.5 percent annual increases, while firefighters will receive increases of about 10 percent over two years. The raises will be tied to performance evaluations.

The clean-energy bill, introduced by Lehman, would make Prince George’s the first jurisdiction in Maryland to fund clean-energy systems in all new public buildings and major renovations of public buildings.

The legislation requires the county to budget an additional 2 percent into the total cost of a building or renovation to pay for the required installation of clean energy.

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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