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Bloomberg Doesn't Budge on 'Living Wage,' Though He's Backed Similar Mandates in the Past
Capital New York
Dana Rubinstein

November 30, 2011
View the Original Article


Mayor Michael Bloomberg doesn’t foresee any compromise on the "living wage" bill now under consideration in the City Council.

“I don’t know what a compromise would be,” Bloomberg said this morning at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a Queens playground.

The legislation in question would require some recipients of city development subsidies, and their tenants, to pay employees at least $10 an hour with health benefits, or $11.50 without them. It has the strong backing of unions and the support of a majority on the City Council, but in order for it to go anywhere, Council Speaker Christine Quinn will have to let the Council vote on it. In recent years, the speaker has cultivated close ties with the mayor and with business leaders, who strongly oppose the measure, and she has thus far refused to take a position on the legislation beyond saying that it needs modification.

“I think that when the government tries to too much interfere with the marketplace it doesn’t turn out well,” said the mayor.

(Bloomberg is not averse to all government activism in the market place: his administration has created tax breaks to spur development and retain tenants, and, famously, levied taxes to deter unhealthy personal behavior, for example.)

To bolster his point, Bloomberg pointed to what has been Exhibit A for opponents of the wage mandate: Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx, where developer Related Companies once proposed investing more than $300 million to build a mall. In 2009, the City Council, overriding a mayoral veto, defeated Related's plan, after it refused to comply with wage demands.

“You saw up in the Bronx what happened when somebody tried to do that,” said Bloomberg. “Thousands of jobs that would have been created by now just aren’t there and it’s hard to see in the immediate future how we’re ever going to catch up and make up for that.”

Yesterday, Councilman Lew Fidler, a frequent opponent of the mayor, made a strikingly similar argument.

“I think the problem that many of us have with the bill is that we all like it in principle,” he said. “The fact remains that that same principle guided our decision on the Kingsbridge Armory, and it’s still empty."

“Who am I to tell someone that no job is better than a job that doesn’t pay a quote-un-quote living wage,” he continued. “And, what do I say to the person, who says, ‘Wait a second. I would have had one of those jobs. I want one of those jobs.'”

Fidler called the "living wage" issue “maybe the most complicated one that’s come before the Council.”

Still, there was a time when the Bloomberg administration didn't find it all that complicated.

Today, Doug Turetsky, chief of staff for the nonpartisan, publicly funded Independent Budget Office, pointed out that the city already has living-wage-type provisions in place covering the employees of food-service and security firms under contract with the city. In 2002, Bloomberg himself signed into law a bill extending the wage requirements to cover home health care and child care workers under contract with the city. Bloomberg also supported instituting living wage-like provisions at Willets Point.

This new bill under consideration in the Council would apply to only six or seven projects a year, according to the I.B.O.

“That’s a small number compared with the 437 contracts the city signed in fiscal year 2011 that are subject to the existing living-wage law,” writes Turetsky.

The bill's proponents, like the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, and the National Employment Law Project, are continuing their efforts to build support in the Council. At last week's hearing, supporters brought in a hotel developer from Portland, Oregon to testify in favor of the legislation. In the coming weeks, they're hoping to bring in other like-minded developers to meet with councilmembers.

The mayor made his remarks at a press conference in Jackson Heights to mark the completion of 200th schoolyard in the "Schoolyards to Playgrounds" component of his PlaNYC program. The idea is to create more open space by renovating schoolyards and making them available to the general public when school is not in session.

"Just to put it in context, the number 200, that represents a 20 percent increase almost overnight in the number of playrounds available to kids," said city parks commissioner Adrian Benepe.