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Divided City Council Holds Heated Hearing On Living Wage Bill
Josh Robin

November 22, 2011
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A City Council committee debated on Tuesday a proposed living wage bill that would require some companies who receive tax breaks from the city to pay more than the current $7.25 federal minimum.

The proposal, which would only affect businesses that get $1 million or more in subsidies, would boost that wage to $10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without benefits.

Arguments on both sides of the issue were passionate. Some said the minimum wage simply is not enough to live on, though others contended wage controls will drive businesses out of the city, leaving fewer jobs altogether.

“We should retain our reputation of being a progressive city. And so I don't understand the opposition to this,” said Brooklyn Councilwoman Letitia James.

“We are here to tell you, if you're willing to listen, that your theory is wrong. This bill will not solve the problem of a shrinking middle class. It will only lead to more people being unemployed,” said Robert Bookman of the New York Nightlife Association.

The powerful retail workers' union does support the bill, but construction workers and business interests largely oppose it.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is also opposed, though the majority of the City Council seems to be supportive.

For unintended consequences of a living wage bill, opponents cite the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. In 2009, the City Council rejected subsidizing the long-barren site when developers balked at forcing future tenants to pay workers higher wages.

Some fear a similar outcome at places like a low-income Staten Island site that is now slated for a supermarket.

The citywide living wage bill was first raised several years ago, but never passed.

To win over skeptics this time, backers amended it and extended exemptions for small businesses, manufacturers and nonprofits.

Yet for all the fuss, budget watchdogs estimate that over the last decade, only six or seven projects a year, like stadiums, would have been affected by the bill..

Caught in the middle of the debate is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who would not say if she would allow the bill to come to a vote.

"I'm under no pressure. Today, I thought, was a very good and productive hearing. We had experts from both sides, people presented their perspectives," said Quinn.

The bill could play a very important role in the Democratic primary in the 2013 election, in which she intends to be a candidate.