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Perched between her Patrons and her members, Quinn edits the 'living wage' bill in public
Capital New York
Dana Rubinstein

November 23, 2011
View the Original Article

It doesn’t look like Christine Quinn is going to allow the City Council to vote on the "living wage" bill as it’s currently drafted, if yesterday’s four-hour-long hearing on the topic is any indication.

The proposal would require recipients of development subsidies from the city to pay a wage of $10 per hour with health benefits (or $11.50 without) and require their tenants do the same. Pushed heavily by organized labor, it has broad support among the Council's majority Democrats.

But Quinn, a liberal Democrat who nevertheless has grown close in recent years both to New York's business establishment and to the mayor—both staunch opponents of the bill—is in a particularly delicate position on this issue. At the hearing she put on a time-consuming display of skepticism, presumably in pursuit of a version of the law that will be more to her liking, and more acceptable to her allies.

She described the bill, Intro 251-A, which is supported by a majority of the 51-member Council, as “one of a number of proposals pending in the Council that would increase wages for some New Yorkers. It is my hope that we can find a way to reach that goal without doing anything that would make New York City a less desirable place to start or to relocate a business, or hurt our job-creation efforts in any way. Whether such a balance is achievable, is what we are going to explore and try to answer in today’s hearing.”

An hour had elapsed when Staten Island Councilman James Oddo, a Republican who opposes the living wage bill, brought up an issue dear to the speaker’s heart: a program she helped create called FRESH (the Food Retail Expansion to Support Health program), which provides incentives for developers to build grocery stores in underserved areas, and through which a supermarket was opened Monday in the councilman’s home borough.

"I hope you guys are aware of the FRESH program," said Oddo. "I was at a press conference yesterday over with Mayor Bloomberg and Borough President Molinaro where we're opening up a Key Food in the South Beach community. It is so needed, both in terms of the fresh vegetables and the healthy foods and the economic vitality it will bring. My understanding is if you look at the 14 fresh initiatives in the city, 12 would not have happened because the margin of profit is so small. "

“I thought it was disingenuous of the mayor to say that supermarket would not have opened had this law been in effect, because if this law had been in effect, that supermarket would have been exempted,” countered Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and a strong supporter of the bill. “It would not have been covered, because it wouldn’t have met the $5 million threshold.”

Appelbaum was referring to the bill's exemption of businesses with annual revenues of less than $5 million. The supermarket, in its 2010 application for city subsidies, certified its annual revenues would be less than $5 million.

The speaker, in turn, countered that the supermarket's revenue was projected elsewhere as $6.5 million. They agreed to sort out their divergent numbers later.

Forty-five minutes later in the seemingly never-ending hearing, the speaker returned to FRESH, something she clearly thinks needs to be exempted from the present bill.

“I think everyone knows how important the FRESH program is to me, personally, having been something that came out of the Council,” she said.

Another thing that's important to her appears to be the question of whether city officials should be able to exercise any discretion over the application of the living-wage law after it's enacted.

Addressing a panel of people testifying in support of the bill, she asked questions about the implmentation of living-wage in Los Angeles: “Any info you guys have on how many L.A. deals were granted waivers and how many L.A. deals saw an increase beyond what was the original subsidy, and how many L.A. deals saw a decrease in affordable housing offers because of the requirements would be useful as we analyze and look at all of this.”

An hour later, by which time the formerly packed hearing room at Emigrant Savings Bank was half-empty, Quinn indentified what could be construed as her third issue with the proposal: the question of whether the tenants of developers who receive city subsidies should also have to pay the higher wage.

As the bill now stands, not only would those who receive subsidies have to pay it, but so would any retail tenants who lease space from them. During the hearing, Quinn returned to the topic of the tenant, and whether or not this the legislation poses an undue hardship for tenants, repeatedly.

"Talk to me a little bit about how you make it work for the tenant, right, James, you said EDC should work to get a better deal for the the tenant," she asked James Parrott, an economist at the liberal-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute, skeptically.

"How does that work operationally assuming for a second we’re not talking hypothetically about the situation where our EDC did the negotiations, because that doesn't really seem to be on the table. Just hypothetically?"