Summit County commissioners split on minimum wage advisory question
Editor’s note: Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence gave examples of what she called “HR nightmares,” including someone working in multiple parts of the county with different minimum wages. That example was misstated and has been corrected below.
BRECKENRIDGE — The Summit Board of County Commissioners will have a special meeting Tuesday, Sept. 3, to discuss putting an advisory question on the 2019 election ballot. The question would poll Summit County residents on whether they approve of a local minimum wage starting at $12 an hour in 2020 and increasing to $15 an hour in three years.
The advisory question is nonbinding and meant only to gauge county voter opinion on implementing a minimum wage. However, the results of the vote could be used as leverage by future campaigns for or against minimum wage legislation or initiatives.
Several business and political leaders in the community have spoken openly about their opposition to implementing a minimum wage, citing how it will hurt employers and possibly shut down small businesses.
Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula went so far as to oppose the advisory question itself during the first hearing Tuesday, Aug. 27, saying voters would not be properly informed on the issue and that he feared setting a precedent for minimum wage legislation that could put small businesses at risk.
“With polling questions, people won’t read everything,” Mamula said to the commissioners. “If we go down this road, we should do as we do for everything else. With affordable housing, we worked hand in hand to come to a consensus, and it passed with flying colors. I hope we could do something similar with this issue, rather than a polling measure.”
The last time Summit voters were asked an advisory question was 2014, when Breckenridge voters handily rejected permitting retail marijuana on Main Street by 925 votes to 400.
The proposed advisory question on minimum wage has created a rare fracture among the county commissioners.
Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier indicated she was on the fence and now leaning against putting the question on the ballot, saying she believes minimum wage workers needed relief with the incredibly high cost of living in Summit but that she did not believe there had been a meaningful, scientific process to find out what minimum wage the county should have. She said the question could backfire and bury any future discussion on minimum wage.
“We saw this as a great opportunity to do what the law requires, which is outreach to a long list of people, including businesses, governments and workers,” Stiegelmeier said. “It seems like it should be a benign thing, but it is not being seen that way. The towns have expressed grave concerns that they want to be more involved. Once the ballot question is out there, they may feel like it’s binding.”
Commissioner Thomas Davidson has been the main county proponent of setting a local minimum wage and advocated for the legislation that allowed local governments to set it. He said he understands the concerns the towns, business community and fellow commissioners have about a lack of discussion on the subject.
However, given the nonbinding nature of the question, Davidson did not feel a protracted process was necessary, adding that he felt the local governments and businesses had not kick-started the discussion on minimum wage and so the county was looking to take the lead.
“There is always healthy give and take and compromise, and compromise is almost always reached before we move forward on something,” Davidson said. “But I had a sense nobody even wanted to talk about this and felt that one way we could do outreach and advance this issue is to ask the advice of the voters of Summit County, who I feel are really smart people.”
Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence stated her opposition to the advisory question, saying the towns had not been consulted on the question and the county had not done enough work on outreach to gather information and inform voters.
Lawrence said that, while she trusts voters, she does not believe they would be aware of the nuances of the state local minimum wage law nor the potential fallout of passing such a law without cooperation and agreement with the individual towns.
For example, how would it work if someone worked in Breckenridge and another part of the county with a different minimum wage? How would the local minimum wage work with tipped workers? She called those scenarios “HR nightmares.”
Despite her opposition to the advisory question, Lawrence said she was a single working mom who worked two jobs before becoming commissioner and she understands the struggles working people have in Summit. She said she was not against higher wages for workers.
She added she was optimistic the county, towns, employers and workers would be able to come to a resolution on minimum wage by the end of the year.
“I do believe we have enough time between now and December to get this hashed out,” Lawrence said. “It will open up a great conversation in our community.”
Davidson conceded that there might be a better way to do outreach on minimum wage, including legislative efforts borne out of a series of town hall forums and evening meetings.
But even if the question is not on the ballot, Davidson vowed to keep working on the issue. He expects Summit’s towns and businesses will make an honest, diligent effort to engage on the minimum wage issue, and not delay and dismiss in the hope it never becomes a reality.
The special meeting will take place at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, at the Old County Courthouse, 208 Lincoln Ave. in Breckenridge. Members of the public are encouraged to attend.
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