By Marisa Demarco
— Dozens of citizens attended the Bernalillo County Commission meeting last night to argue for and against a wage raise. Commission Chair Maggie Hart Stebbins said more than 40 people signed up to speak on the issue.
Many business owners argued that the impact of a 13 percent raise was too much to bear. They said with higher payroll costs, they’d have to lay off some employees. They also objected to the requirement that they keep employee records of hours worked and amount paid on file for three years or face severe penalties.
Jack Bent said the term “minimum wage” has a negative tone. “It should be named ‘The Beginning Wage,’ ” he said, because that’s its purpose. “It was never meant to support a family of two or family of four.”
However, argued folks in favor of the increase, it often does. Parents struggle to put food on the table, often by working two or three minimum wage jobs, proponents said.
Birdland owner Jay Steinberg said he’s owned his business for 19 years and has always paid his employees more than minimum wage. In turn, they’re are more loyal and make better sales, he added.
Republican commissioners attempted several amendments to the wage measure, but, outnumbered on the Commission, all of their attempts were shot down on 3-2 votes. The minimum wage increase also passed on a 3-2 vote, and the audience erupted in cheers and boos.
The new wage ordinance:
• Raises the minimum wage in two chunks. It will go up 50 cents on July 1 and another 50 cents on Jan. 1. As of 2014, it will be $8.50 in Bernalillo County.
• Tipped employees will continue to get $2.13 in the County. If their tips for the day don’t even out to $7.50 an hour, the employer has to make up the difference.
• There are exceptions to the minimum wage: People employed by a parent, spouse or sibling won’t have to receive the full $8.50. People hiring babysitters or workers under the age of 16 won’t have to pay the wage, either. Finally, if employers provide health care or child care, they only have to pay $7.50.
• The wage will be tied to the cost of living formula and can increase every year on Jan. 1.
Albuquerque’s minimum wage was increased by voters in the 2012 election, but it only applies within the city limits. The Commission’s move will affect people living in unincorporated Bernalillo County. The measure was carried by Commissioner Art De La Cruz.
Deputy County Manager Tom Swisstack gave a report on the number of inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center. He said there’s been a downward trend, even though the weather is growing warmer. (Typically in summer months, crime and inmate numbers go up.) But, he added, the average length of stay is increasing.
MDC Chief Ramon Rustin said there are about 211 inmates who’ve been in jail for more than a year, and one inmate who’s been there for six years on a murder charge. But an audit of prisoners shows that “it’s a complicated bunch,” he added. Some are in lockup for a petty misdemeanor but because of past crimes are considered high risk.
Commissioner De La Cruz asked for a list showing who’s in jail and what their offenses are. “I don’t think someone who steals a pack of bubblegum should be in there for 30 days,” he said.
In the proceedings of an ongoing 18-year lawsuit over conditions at the jail, the county has been ordered to mitigate overcrowding. Orders were filed by two judges last week demanding the commissioners enter settlement talks next month and explain why there shouldn’t be a written plan by July 1.
At the last meeting, commissioners tied 2-2 on a vote that would have sent prisoners to other jails to help alleviate the population pressure. The measure failed. Commissioner Lonnie Talbert was absent.
Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the county has thrown money at the overcrowding issue for years but is only “nibbling at the edges” of it. Part of the problem is that the Commission can only make certain changes, he added, and judges should also be pressured to move people through the system more quickly. “I believe there’s a solution, but it doesn’t reside in this building.”
Commissioners renewed a liquor license tax that they have to vote on yearly. It imposes a fee $250 or less.
County Clerk Maggie Toulouse Oliver estimated that the county will take in about $13,500 total this year from this tax. Hart Stebbins asked how much alcohol addiction and abuse costs the county each year. Deputy County Manager Swisstack said it was a hard number to pin down, but it’s probably a lot more than the yield from the tax.
The funds, Hart Stebbins said, go to diverting young people from a lifetime of alcohol abuse.
After spending most of the day discussing the 2014 budget, commissioners were able to pass it without much back-and-forth. Budget Director Shirley Ragin said this budget was just 1 percent more than what was approved last year.
The next meeting is Tuesday, May 14, at 5 p.m. in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the basement of City Hall. Dig through the agenda the preceding Friday at bit.ly/BernCoAgenda.