Linn County minimum wage: Is it settled?

By Dave DeWitte

Linn County will become the second county in Iowa to boost the minimum wage on Jan. 1.

The county’s Board of Supervisors cast its third and final vote Sept. 12 on an ordinance that will raise the minimum wage paid by most businesses in three $1 hourly increments to $8.25 on Jan. 1, 2017, $9.25 on Jan. 1, 2018, and $10.25 on Jan. 1, 2019. The increases total more than 41 percent.

“It’s a statement of who we are,” said Supervisor Brent Oleson, describing the ordinance as a step toward lifting the lowest-income families out of poverty.

The supervisors’ action isn’t expected to be the final word on wages in Linn County, however. Opposed by some businesses and business advocacy organizations, it sets up a likely debate within Linn County municipalities, and even the Iowa General Assembly, over possible actions to override the increase.

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors passed the state’s first local minimum wage law in 2015. It has already raised the minimum wage in Johnson County to $9.15, and will raise it again to $10.10 on Jan. 1, before linking it to the cost of living.

Supporters of the increase in Linn County framed the discussion as a reaction to the Iowa General Assembly’s refusal to pass a minimum wage increase over eight years, during which inflation has significantly eroded the buying power of the current wage. Some 18,400 Linn County residents will be directly affected by wage increases required by the law, according to an estimate from the Iowa Policy Project, a left-leaning think tank based in Iowa City.

Linn County Board of Supervisors Chair Ben Rogers, who proposed the minimum wage ordinance, called the Sept. 12 vote a “historic day” for Linn County.

He did, however, acknowledge the potential for municipal minimum wage ordinances in Marion and Cedar Rapids that could have the effect of lowering the minimum wage from the new countywide standard. He urged leaders in those cities to “take time to really research this and understand what’s at stake,” and for wage hike supporters to lobby them.

The supervisors continued to hear from some opponents of the increase at the Sept. 12 meeting.

“It’s so easy to use other people’s money to support social solutions, and our taxes are already so high now, I don’t even know if it’s going to work,” said Craig Sealey, Jr., of northwest Cedar Rapids, who had previously opposed the ordinance.

Mr. Sealey told the supervisors “it’s wonderful to be Robin Hood,” but said they’re still robbing, and potentially injuring, small businesses.

Mr. Oleson attempted to turn around the argument. He said the state of Iowa can give out $110 million in tax breaks to an Egyptian company for a fertilizer plant, or $10 million in tax breaks to the Kum & Go convenience store chain to move their headquarters.

“It’s corporate welfare, but when some people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder get a raise, all of the sudden we’re robbing people,” Mr. Oleson said.

Craig Tierney of Living Wage Linn County, a group supporting the increase, left the meeting hopeful. Mr. Tierney said he found himself in a minimum wage tipped position as a bartender after suffering a back injury that left him out of work, and now is working on a business degree.

“I’m very happy the supervisors did what they needed to do, and pushed this to do the right thing,” he said.

Mr. Tierney said that he thinks it’s likely the Iowa General Assembly will now pass a minimum wage law that will override the laws already passed in Linn County and Johnson County, but believes the important thing is that there’s not another eight-year drought in raising the minimum wage.