Good Night, and Good Luck

Five years of effort culminated Tuesday night as the Santa Barbara City Council voted to approve a Living Wage Ordinance for city contract workers. The 5-2 vote in favor was greeted by a full house of rhythmic clapping, hugs, and thank-yous among councilmembers, the public, and city staff. Das Williams, who along with Helene Schneider championed and shepherded the ordinance through the process, said the ordinance “reflected Santa Barbara’s values.” Several longtime Living Wage advocates addressing the council prior to the vote intoned the sentiment that a city’s budget should be “a moral document.” The ordinance itself is hardly revolutionary: Private companies that perform at least $15,000 of contracted work for the city in one year must pay their employees $14 per hour for that work; $12 if they provide health insurance; or $11 if they provide family health insurance. The final figures represented a compromise on the part of advocates who calculated in 2003 that $15.40 per hour was the minimum sustainable or living wage not counting “buying a car, savings, or take-out meals,” according to activist Sharon Hoshida of Santa Barbara for a Living Wage. The coalition also accepted the exclusion of nonprofits from the livable wage ordinance, but only on the understanding that city staff would develop a point-incentive plan for nonprofits that offer benefits and higher salaries. A few people raised their voices against the ordinance last night, chief among them Steve Cushman, representing the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, but even his criticism was hedged. Cushman expressed concern regarding the symbolism of the ordinance, worrying it would create a perception that Santa Barbara is unfriendly to commerce. “And it’s the next step that we’re concerned with,” added Cushman, referring to the concern that other city employees may expect to have their wages raised to stay proportionally ahead of the contract workers. Mario Borgatello of MarBorg Industries and Allen Williams of ServiceMaster janitorial services voiced more substantial concerns — though both expressed emotional support for the ordinance. Borgatello complained the ordinance created an uneven playing field. MarBorg already provides family health insurance; however, he said, it discourages family health coverage, as it costs more than the one-dollar-per-hour discount in wages the ordinance provides for. Borgatello speculated that out-of-town companies would attempt to cheat the ordinance by claiming the $11 wage option without actually providing the health coverage, putting businesses like MarBorg at a competitive disadvantage in the bidding process. Borgatello called for the city to ensure more vigilant enforcement than the ordinance currently provides. Williams, meanwhile, said he feared ServiceMaster would suffer when bidding for small jobs against companies small enough to not be subject to the ordinance. The two dissenting councilmembers, Roger Horton and Brian Barnwell, both worried that the city, which is just recovering from an economic downturn that caused city staff to dip into reserves, could not afford to pay the wages the ordinance demands. Finance Director Rob Peirson was not similarly concerned, saying the cost to city government —  based on other cities with similar ordinances — would be “a fraction of one percent” of the overall budget. The ordinance will return two more times to the council, as a matter of procedure, before its adoption is finalized.

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