An Indianapolis City-County Council panel on Tuesday night postponed a vote on their Democratic leader's proposal to increase the minimum wage of city and county employees to $13 per hour, but Council President Maggie Lewis is pushing officials to vote as soon as possible.
Lewis said some of her colleagues have suggested taking up the proposal to increase the wages of about 365 employees, which is slated to cost between $450,000 and $500,000 annually, as part of the annual budget-writing process in the fall. That could delay the starting date to at least Jan. 1 instead of Oct. 1, which Lewis initially proposed.
Lewis said she is "willing to negotiate."
"I'm not opposed to it being part of the budget process," Lewis said. "I don't want that to be our copout or our out for not addressing this issue. I don't want them to go away in a corner and not come back to us. I pushed a lot and I will continue to push the council [chief financial officer] to figure out how to make this happen. This is that important. The outcome we want is for people in this building to have a livable wage."
Council CFO Bart Brown said at a meeting of the council's Rules and Public Policy Committee that he was working with the city controller and that he believed the administration would prefer a later start date as it addresses budget challenges.
The proposal comes as Mayor Joe Hogsett is working to eliminate the city's structural budget deficit, which is about $23 million. Hogsett released a written statement after Lewis' proposal was first released, urging caution.
“When I was sworn in, I made clear our city faced a $50 million structural budget deficit that, left unchecked, could bankrupt Indianapolis," Hogsett said. "While I appreciate and share concerns about the current compensation afforded to public employees, we owe it to Indianapolis taxpayers to show them a balanced budget before we tackle this important issue.”
Councilman Mike McQuillen, the Republican minority leader on the council, said he appreciated the talk about making the proposal part of the budget-writing process, and said he "isn't necessarily opposed" to the idea of raising municipal wages.
But some officials said the city's finances were in good enough shape to take action now. Brown said he believes the mayor "will come closer than any mayor has in the last 20 years" to eliminating the structural deficit this year. He also noted that the wage proposal would amount to less than 1 percent of the budget.
Councilman Jared Evans called the desire to delay the proposal until the budget process "ridiculous." He wanted it to be voted out of committee Tuesday night.
"This is a no-brainer for this council to act and give these people a decent living wage," Evans said. "Not a wage to go out and buy a Buick, but a wage to go out and buy a Chevy Cobalt."
In response, a few people in the audience immediately shouted out: "Used!"
Lewis is trying to remain optimistic about the proposal. She pushed Brown to work quickly with the mayor's office, saying "I don't like that idea" to postpone the proposal.
"The mayor did not say he was opposed to raises, so he has committed his controller to help us through this process," she said.
While some are apparently urging caution, Councilman Monroe Gray thought the proposal to raise municipal wages to $13 wasn't generous enough. He asked Brown to study how much it would cost to raise wages higher.
"When you go to a negotiation, you start where you want to be instead of starting where we need to be," Gray said. "It would be interesting to see what those numbers are, and at what point could we make an amendment to make it $15 dollars an hour."
Among those urging action at Tuesday night's meeting were several union representatives, activists, and former City-County Council member Joanne Sanders. She said "I want the community to know this is not a stretch; in fact, this is bare bones."
"We are underspending county funds and city funds on the backs of these very employees," Sanders said.