Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) signs the county’s $15 minimum-wage bill surrounded by members of the County Council and activists in Rockville, Md. (Rachel Siegel/TWP)

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) signed legislation Monday that requires a $15-an-hour minimum wage starting in 2021 for businesses with at least 51 employees, and giving smaller businesses a bit more time to implement that wage.

The wealthy county is the first jurisdiction in Maryland, and the second in the region behind the District, to adopt a $15 minimum, which has become a central focus of the progressive movement in recent years. Leaders of the business community oppose the law and say it will put Maryland’s largest jurisdiction at a disadvantage compared to its suburban neighbors.

Advocates are vowing to use the legislation’s passage to renew their push for a statewide $15 minimum, noting that Montgomery is the only suburban U.S. jurisdiction to mandate the wage in a state that has not enacted a similar law statewide.

"In most debates there are gives and takes," Leggett said Monday at the signing, acknowledging more than a year of back and forth with the council over the timeline for implementing the $15 wage and the definition of small and large businesses. "Montgomery County has done what is right, what is appropriate, and what is reasonable under the circumstances and conditions."

Leggett, who is finishing the third year of his third and final term in office, said the debate over the bill was one “we should take a great deal of pride in.”

The crowd celebrates as Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett D) signs the county’s $15 minimum-wage bill into law in Rockville, Md. (Rachel Siegel/TWP)

The implementation and economic impacts of a higher wage, however, will fall to Leggett’s successor.

Among the Democrats running for his seat, Marc Elrich (D-At Large) was the bill’s lead sponsor. George Leventhal (D-At Large) was a co-sponsor, and Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) voted in favor of the final bill. State Del. C. William Frick (D-Montgomery) has said raising the minimum wage should be dealt with at the state level.

Two other Democrats running for county executive, David Blair and Rose Krasnow, could not be reached for comment on Monday. Robin Ficker, the only Republican in the race so far, answered questions about the minimum wage by slamming recent tax hikes in the county, and said an increase to $15 an hour may not be enough to offset the tax bite being taken out of people’s paychecks.

In January, Leggett vetoed legislation that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 along a more condensed timeline, saying he was concerned about overburdening businesses and triggering employee layoffs. He then commissioned a study to quantify the impact of a $15 minimum wage, but that study was widely discredited for overestimating the number of local jobs that would be lost.

In September, Leggett proposed changes to a revised minimum-wage bill sponsored by Elrich, calling on council members to expand the definition of small businesses and elongate the compliance timeline.

Last week, the council unanimously approved a compromise between Elrich's bill and Leggett's recommendations. Businesses with 11 to 50 employees must pay at least $15 an hour by 2023. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees must pay the wage by 2024.

At a news briefing before Monday’s signing, Berliner said he received frustrated phone calls from local retailers in the wake of last week’s vote.

“There are people that are unhappy,” he said.

Gigi Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, which testified against the increase in September, said she still has concerns over Montgomery’s competitiveness in attracting businesses, particularly as low-wage jobs are being transformed and replaced by technology.

“What kinds of policies are we putting in place that will attract and retain the employer of the future, who in turn is going to attract and retain the employee of the future?” Godwin asked.

After the signing, Elrich said Montgomery’s bill is more moderate in its timeline than similar legislation in larger cities. He said he was confident business owners would be “creative and smart” in managing their businesses moving forward.

“The truth is, it’s the law,” he said.