MONROE - When Mayor John Iacoangeli went to his office the day after the living wage he championed passed Monroe City Council, he had a voice mail from a constituent that warmed his heart.
"She told me she appreciated the position I took. She told me it would help her children and grandchildren. [So] I feel pretty good about the results," he said.
The ordinance, passed Jan. 18 and which goes into effect Feb. 8, calls for companies signing contracts with the city for $15,000 or more during a 12-month period, and for companies receiving tax abatements from the city, to pay a minimum of $9.06 an hour to employees also receiving health-care benefits, and $10.06 an hour to employees without health-care benefits.
The vote did not come easy, giving the mayor one of his most challenging tests after one year in office. During several months of lobbying, Mr. Iacoangeli faced strong opposition, including from the local chamber of commerce.
Councilman Suzanne Wetzel opposed the ordinance, saying there were too many unanswered questions. She was concerned the ordinance would prevent some companies from doing business in Monroe and did not like the idea of keeping a company out of Monroe that might pay entry-level employees in the $8.50-an-hour range.
"That might be only two jobs out of 50, but we've said no to that company," she said.
The mayor said the ordinance is a social issue.
"It's about bringing people out of poverty. We need to value the people who live here," he said.
Ms. Wetzel took offense at that viewpoint, telling the mayor he implied that she did not care about poverty.
Rather than pass an ordinance, she said, council can impact wages by saying no to companies seeking tax abatements that don't pay their employees implied that she didn't care about poverty.
Rather than pass an ordinance, she said, council can impact wages by saying no to companioes seeking tax abatements that don't pay their employee solid wages.
But the mayor said it's rare for council to say no in such instances.
"Based on my experience, when council is presented with a new business seeking to locate here, the council finds it hard to ask for other concessions.
So her position, although admirable, realistically doesn't work in the political environment," he said.
Ms. Wetzel was joined by Jean Guyor in opposing the ordinance.
Ms. Guyor said she was concerned about keeping businesses out of Monroe.
Councilman Linda Compora backed the mayor.
"If I am sitting in a position where I can help somebody help themselves up, then I have an obligation [to do so]," she said.
Councilman C. James Sabo also supported the mayor.
The vote would have passed comfortably had Councilman Bill Burkett been present. But Mr. Burkett, a longtime supporter of a living wage ordinance, had a kidney transplant on Jan. 17 and was absent.
That left the deciding vote in the hands of Dorothy Edwards, who wavered back and forth throughout the meeting.
Ms. Edwards said she understood the poverty issue, recalling that she once made $2.15 an hour while trying to raise a son. But she wondered whether council had the right to pass legislation telling businesses how much to pay their employees.
Hiding her face with a blank sheet of paper from the audience, many of whom spoke out against the ordinance, Ms. Edwards finally voted yes, giving the mayor a 4-2 victory.
Had the vote been 3-3, it would have been defeated.
Mr. Iacoangeli said the notion that businesses will be chased away by such an ordinance will prove not to be valid, as other cities with similar ordinances have proved.
Moreover, he said, businesses are attracted to cities that are more affluent and progressive.
He said he doesn't expect any negative fallout from the vote.
"Monroe is a small community. In the scheme of things there are other projects we are working on with the business community so I think, at least I hope, it doesn't impact the relationships we have with [business.]"
Ms. Wetzel said in her view there are no hard feelings.
"Obviously I'm disappointed that it passed. [But] I always look at these issues as Democracy in action."
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