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Council Faces Off Over Controversial 'Living Wage' Bill
Jill Colvin

May 12, 2011
View the Original Article

A hearing was held to consider whether developers who receive big city grants should pay workers higher wages.

CITY HALL — Administration officials' warnings that a controversial proposal to force developers who receive big city grants to pay their workers a so-called "living wage" would kill jobs and stymie growth were met with fierce opposition from City Council members at a much-awaiting hearing Thursday.

After months of heated rhetoric, elaborate protests and a city-funded million-dollar study, the council finally had its chance to weigh in on proposed legislation that would force city projects that receive more than $100,000 in benefits to pay workers at least $10 an hour, plus benefits, or $11.50 without — significantly higher than the minimum wage.

The legislation could lead to a dramatic showdown between City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the rest of the council or between Quinn and the mayor, depending on where she sides on the issue.

Quinn has not yet taken a public stand.

Proponents, who gathered in front of 250 Broadway to rally ahead of the hearing, said the city should not be subsidizing projects that pay so little.

"We do not want to use tax payer money... to subsidize projects that pay poverty wages," City Councilman and chief sponsor Oliver Koppell told the riled-up crowd.

Throughout the proceedings, members said the city must do more to help people struggling to make ends meet.

"We don’t want people working like they’re indentured servants, reaming pennies and scrambling," Upper Manhattan Councilman Robert Jackson said.

By late afternoon, more than 70 people had signed up to testify for and against the plan.

But opponents, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, argued the mandate would drive developers out of the city, killing jobs and choking economic growth.

Tokumbo Shobowale, Chief of Staff to Deputy Mayor Robert Steel, who testified on behalf of the administration, said he had "grave concerns" about the impact of the legislation, which the Economic Development Corporation warned this week would drive away more than $7 billion in investment.

The summary of a city-funded $1 million study release just in time for the hearing concluded the bill would have dire consequences, including derailing 24 percent of office projects in Manhattan and costing tens of thousands of jobs and billions in investment over the next 20 years.

"It would be very unfortunate," Bloomberg said at an unrelated press conference earlier Thursday. "You would not help people who are starting their way up the economic ladder. You would kill an awful lot of those jobs."

"If you drive them out of the city, nobody really benefits from it," he said.

But proponents, who have been building a coalition in support of the bill for months, dismissed the study as propaganda and questioned its findings.

"This study is worthless," charged Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who alleged numerous flaws in its methodology.

Bronx resident Bernadette Bragg, who works next door to City Hall and came out for the rally, said a higher wage would make a huge difference to people like her who earn less than $10 an hour.

"It's extremely difficult. Extremely," said Bragg, 50, of making ends meet. If she had children, she said she would be forced onto welfare.

So far, about 30 Council members have signed onto the bill. It takes 34 to override a veto by the mayor.

Quinn who did not attend the hearing, has the power to prevent the bill from going to vote.

But Koppell said that side-stepping the Speaker is not off the table.

"We will not rest until this become law," he vowed.