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Akron Council encourages raising minimum wage

2/13/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Stephanie Kist

Capital budget approved; officials discuss CSO hiring

DOWNTOWN AKRON — Akron City Council joined its unanimous voice Feb. 10 to encourage Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10.

A resolution co-sponsored by Council members Jeff Fusco (D-at large) and Margo Sommerville (D-Ward 3) states an increase in minimum wage would be expected to spur economic growth by providing $35 billion to workers, leading to the development of 85,000 new jobs. The minimum wage is currently $7.25 and has been since 2009, according to the resolution, which further states there is increasing concern about the spread of low-wage jobs in the U.S. economy.

“I think this is a step to show support to our struggling working families and a step toward economic growth, as well,” Sommerville said.

While the resolution was unanimously approved, Councilman Russel Neal Jr. (D-Ward 4) voiced a bit of hesitation, saying he wanted to share concerns about how raising minimum wage might affect a certain segment of the population. If minimum wage rises, so will the price of commodities, Neal said. That might be a hardship for seniors on a fixed income, whose income wouldn’t change, he said.

He added he supports the need to improve the quality of life for young working families, but he fears the solution isn’t as simple as just raising minimum wage.

In other legislative action, Council unanimously approved the 2014 capital improvement budget. After weeks of hearings on the budget, a few relatively minor changes were made, and the amount of the budget was set at $223.85 million.

Included in the changes were an increase of $50,000 in the miscellaneous storm sewers area, which Planning Committee Chairman Fusco said is intended to place a greater priority on addressing flooding in light of several recent flooding rainstorms affecting residents. The funding will allow some options to be studied, he said.

Also, an increase of $50,000 will go toward improvements at the Copley Road Soccer Complex, and $25,000 was added to the street-cleaning fund to introduce speed reduction measures on city streets.

A $5 million main outfall sewer project was eliminated for 2014 due to scheduling difficulties, Fusco said.

In other business, Council’s Public Utilities Committee hosted an hour-long discussion with city officials and union officials during its afternoon committee meeting about local hiring for the city’s massive Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) construction project.

Council President Garry Moneypenny (D-Ward 10) spearheaded the discussion, saying it was timely on the heels of last week’s approval of a sewer rate increase, which will provide a funding source for projects to alleviate CSO, which have been mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Last week’s legislation, which supports the city’s intention to enter into an Integrated Plan for the project — the cost of which had ballooned to $1.4 billion under the previous Long Term Control Plan — also included a provision that the city make an effort to hire local and minority workers for the jobs.

It is an issue important to every Council member, he said.

“We need to start looking at this immediately,” he said. “There is an urgency to this.”

Public Service Director John Moore said Mayor Don Plusquellic has been clear “he is committed to having the best local hiring program in the country.”

Recently, the city started a program to train residents toward obtaining a Commercial Driver License (CDL). Moore said more than 700 applications were received; the city chose 68 at random, and 20 were chosen to take the class. Of those, 15 finished the class and nine have passed the CDL exam.

He noted that, while the city won’t have a need for CDL drivers until a project to construct a large tunnel is bid out and begun, he saw 10 help-wanted ads seeking CDL drivers in the daily paper, and those who finished the class and passed the test were being equipped with marketable skills even in a struggling economy. Those who went through the training will either work for the city for a set period of time or pay the city back for the training, he added.

Commitment to local and minority hiring has been clear as the city has been entrenched in the CSO issue, but Assistant Law Director Sean Vollman cautioned meeting attendees that “it has to be legally defensible.” Similar programs in other cities have been challenged in court and found to be unconstitutional, he said.

“There are federal constitutional requirements that must be met,” he said. “It’s a minefield.”

Vollman said there is much study and research under way regarding a local hiring program, and Moore said he hopes there is a more concrete plan ready to present to Council within a month.

“I think we’re getting there,” Vollman said. “We’re committed, and we’re going to roll something out.”

Committee Chairman Bob Hoch (D-Ward 6) agreed that research is most important at this juncture, as the city is awaiting EPA approval of pursuing an Integrated Plan, but the good will evident at the meeting was encouraging.

“I think between all of us, we’re going to do something really good here,” he said. “I can feel it.”

Due to the Presidents’ Day holiday, Council will not meet next week. The next regular Council meeting will be Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers on the third floor of the Akron Municipal Building, 166 S. High St. Committee meetings are scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. that afternoon, also in Council Chambers.

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