An ordinance raising the minimum wage in Fayette County from the federal minimum of $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over the next three years cleared a major hurdle Thursday
The ordinance received its first reading at an Urban County Council meeting; a final vote is expected at the Nov. 19 meeting.
An attempt to amend the ordinance to exempt small businesses was defeated during Thursday's meeting. But a different amendment to exempt agricultural workers was successful.
Councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti, who has pushed for the minimum wage increase, said after the meeting that agricultural workers already are exempt from federal minimum wage laws. The amendment would only further clarify what is already federal law. The amendment does not substantially change the ordinance, she said.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," Mossotti said of its chances of passing at its second reading in two weeks.
After months of debate, the council voted 8-6 at an Oct. 27 work session to put the ordinance on the council's docket.
Councilman Richard Moloney — who was not at the Oct. 27 meeting — voted against both amendments that would exempt agriculture and small businesses. Moloney said he did so because he did not want the ordinance to be gutted. But Moloney declined to say Thursday how he would vote at the Nov. 19 meeting.
Mayor Jim Gray has not said if he would veto the ordinance. The two-term mayor said last week that he would listen carefully to council debate.
Several business owners spoke against the ordinance Thursday.
Bill Burke said he thought the minimum raise increase would cost his business $175,000 over the next 24 months. "You will see small businesses exit the county," he said. "You will see illegal immigrants come here for jobs."
Dawn Cloyd of Newton's Attic said the education nonprofit mostly hires high school and college students and teachers to help with its after-school and summer science and technology programs. Cloyd said the students have very few skills or past work history, and she cannot afford to pay them more.
"If I have to pay someone $9 or $10 an hour that's not worth $9 or $10 an hour, I will be forced to go to a volunteer pool," Cloyd said. Or Newton's Attic would have to raise its prices, she said.
Increasing the minimum wage does not help poor people, Cloyd argued.
"Unless you increase efficiency or increase productivity you do not create more wealth," she said.
Vice Mayor Steve Kay said there have been dozens and dozens of studies looking at raising the minimum wage. They have found that raising the minimum wage does not have a dramatic effect on job losses.
Councilman Jake Gibbs said the federal minimum wage has been raised dozens of times since it was introduced in 1939. The last time was in 2009.
"There has never been a cataclysmic event," Gibbs said. "I don't see how this time would be different."
Councilwoman Jennifer Scutchfield made the motion to exempt small businesses with 50 employees or less from the local ordinance. Scutchfield said she had heard from a lot of small businesses in her district that were concerned a higher minimum wage would put them out of business.
Moloney said exempting businesses based on the number of employees would be too difficult to enforce. "I have concerns on how you would enforce this," he said.
The motion was defeated 9-6.
Councilman Russ Hensley, who represents rural Fayette County, made the motion to ensure agriculture was exempt from the local ordinance. That amendment passed 8-7.
If the local ordinance is approved Nov. 19, Lexington would become the second city in Kentucky to raise the minimum wage.
Louisville passed an ordinance in December increasing its wage floor to $9 an hour over the next three years. A group of businesses has filed a lawsuit challenging whether the city had the authority to raise the minimum wage. That case is pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.
Originally, Lexington's ordinance included tipped workers and tied minimum wage increases after three years to the consumer price index. Mossotti agreed to take out both provisions to secure the eight votes necessary to advance the ordinance.
Under the ordinance, the minimum wage would increase from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $8.20 an hour on July 1; $9.15 an hour on July 1, 2017; and $10.10 an hour on July 1, 2018.