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Rockland residents to vote on city minimum wage hike

By Stephen Betts | Sep 14, 2020
Rockland City Councilor Nate Davis authored the city minimum wage referendum that will go before voters Nov. 3.

Rockland — Rockland residents will decide Nov. 3 on whether a city minimum wage should be created that would gradually increase to $15 by 2024.

The wage would only apply to businesses who employ more than 25 workers in Rockland.

The Rockland City Council voted 3-2 at its Sept. 14 meeting to send the question before voters. Councilor Nate Davis, who authored the proposal, and Councilors Valli Geiger and Ben Dorr voted to send it to voters. Mayor Lisa Westkaemper and Councilor Ed Glaser voted no.

If approved by voters, the local law would increase the minimum wage from its current statewide $12 an hour level to $13 in Rockland beginning Jan. 1, 2022, $14 in 2023, $15 in 2024 and then annual cost-of-living increases. The state minimum wage law includes annual cost of living increases.

Councilor Dorr said sending the question to voters to decide was the appropriate the action to take.

"It has always been my aspiration, and Emily's aspiration, as a small business to pay people as much as we can while still providing for ourselves," said Dorr who along with his wife own and operate the clothing store Curator on Main Street. He said they supported a proposal for the state minimum wage to be increased to $15.

Dorr also successfully argued against including a lower training wage for workers younger than 18 years old. He said many of these young workers are supporting families or have no permanent home and need the income to live.

Councilor Ed Glaser said while he supports an increase, he said he was concerned about doing it during a pandemic in which businesses are struggling.

Business organizations came out strongly against the proposed city minimum wage hike.

The Board of Directors of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce issued a statement Sept. 14 opposing the hike. Chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Peaco said the Board did not poll its membership but the 18 board members are elected by the 800 members of the Chamber.

"Businesses in Rockland and across Maine have already absorbed a 63% increase in the minimum wage in the past four years, and under existing Maine law, the minimum wage will continue to increase annually based on changes in the Consumer Price Index," the letter stated.

"In addition to absorbing these added costs in recent years, businesses and nonprofits have also faced a once-in-a-lifetime challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, placing significant doubt about the future survival of many businesses and nonprofits in Rockland and our region."

Many Rockland businesses will also experience a significant increase in property taxes through the revaluation process. Peaco pointed out.

"Adding a local increase in the minimum wage is a disincentive for business development in Rockland, and yet another hindrance to the success of existing and future local businesses.

"Instituting a plan to exceed the state minimum will have a negative impact on Rockland businesses and residents, forcing businesses to make difficult decisions about reducing their staff count, and moving more toward automation. Increases in the minimum wage also force businesses to look at additional wage increases for more tenured and experienced employees, adding even further to the cost of doing business here."

The Retail Association of Maine issued a similar letter to the city in opposition to the referendum being held. Numerous individual businesses also sent in statements in opposition.

The state's minimum wage is $12 an hour compared to the national rate of $7.25. Maine voters approved a gradual increase in the state minimum wage to its current level in a November 2016 referendum.

The Maine minimum wage had not increased, prior to the 2016 referendum, since 2007.

Davis has previously spoken about the need to offer proposals to help people with low incomes. He suggested at a March 2 Council meeting that a living wage be considered.

"I think that working people should be paid enough to live healthy, fulfilling lives in the vicinity of where they work. I don't think that $12 is enough to do that in Rockland," Davis said when he introduced the measure last week.

Absentee ballots are expected to be available for voting starting Oct. 5. The election day is Nov. 3.

A person working a 40-hour a week job earns $24,960 annually at the Maine minimum wage, before taxes are deducted.

The Maine People's Alliance issued a report in 2016 that said a living wage in Maine for a single person was $15.77 and for a single parent with two children was $29.08.

Davis pointed out that a similar question will be on the November ballot in Portland. That question was placed on the ballot through a citizen initiative.

City Clerk Stuart Sylvester said if approved by the Council, this would be the first time a Council has placed a referendum before voters to enact an ordinance. The Council has placed advisory referendums before voters in the past.

Businesses that violate the law would be liable for paying back wages as well as incurring fines.

Davis said the government system amplifies the voices of businesses but that low income workers should also have their voices amplified.

The council also voted 4-1 (Westkaemper opposed) at its Sept. 14 meeting to approve a property tax deferral plan for seniors offered by Davis.

The tax deferral for senior citizens is based on a state law for people 70 years or older whose income is not more than three times the federal poverty level. That would be about a cap of about $38,000 in annual income to qualify for the deferral.

The deferred taxes would be paid when the property owner sells their property, dies or stops living in the residence. The city would have a lien on the property to recoup the deferred taxes.

Davis said the estimate compiled by city economic and community development director was that up to 634 households might qualify for the assistance and if all of those people participated, the cost would be $1.8 million annually. He said, however, the town of Wells has the same program and no one has taken advantage of it.

The Council rejected on a 3-2 vote at its Aug. 10 a plan by Davis to provide up to $100 per month for as many as 100 Rockland residents who seek assistance.

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Comments (6)
Posted by: Valerie Wass | Sep 17, 2020 07:30

But, by raising minimum wage in the city, our city government will get raises!  Very sneaky indeed!


Posted by: Valerie Wass | Sep 16, 2020 07:26

I do not like the idea of the city increasing the State's minimum wage.  I see it as sticking their nose it something else when they have so many other issues to deal with.  In my opinion, this is the State's job not the cities.

Posted by: Deborah Clarisse Morrison | Sep 16, 2020 07:23

I hear you Mrs. Prime Minister. "The problem with socialism is that you eventually  run out of other people's money"

If the city minimum wage is such a good idea, then make it for everyone.  Give all your employees the max and you and you wife can then live on the minimum.  Why have it only for businesses with 25 or more employees?  The reason must be "getting the foot in the door" - let's face it, there are very few business that employ 25 or more.  Next year it will be 15, then the next year it will be 10 or more...maybe 5 or more etc.  Social engineering has never worked in the long run - true correct change takes time to work itself out without outside interference.  We're not talking about screwing up Main Street or plastic bags here - these actions can destroy a business and then no one has a job.  This idea is WAY beyond the scope of the city council's purpose. SM

Posted by: Barry Douglas Morse | Sep 15, 2020 20:40

I think everyone is sympathetic to those trying to survive on minimum wage. But it is true that a local minimum wage will affect the cost of doing business in Rockland and the ability of Rockland to attract new businesses.

Additionally, Rockland will need to take on the added responsibility and cost of enforcement that is currently borne by the state.

Tough question.

Posted by: Gerald A Weinand | Sep 15, 2020 20:36

Mr McKusick:


I agree with you strongly - the deferment is a way to keep seniors in their homesteads while property taxes increase around them. My only quibble with the statute is that it lacks a definition for "family member," but the law does require that in order to maintain the deferment, the house must be the primary residence of the owner receiving said deferment. The City will recoup taxes owed on transfer of the deed.

Posted by: Richard McKusic, Sr. | Sep 15, 2020 02:57

Very thankful that the tax deferral plan for seniors is moving forward.  Have lived in my home over fifty years; as many here in the South End have; and desire to stay the rest of my years.

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