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Fort Collins council rejects minimum-wage hike

FORT COLLINS – A divided Fort Collins City Council on Tuesday night rejected on first reading a plan to raise the city’s minimum wage.

City staff had presented options that would have boosted the lowest hourly wage for all workers in Fort Collins from the statewide minimum of $13.65 to either $16.65 or $17.29 by Jan. 1, 2026. However, after forceful but civil debate on both sides among workers, business owners and council members, the issue failed on a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Jeni Arndt joining Shirley Peel, Susan Gutowski and Tricia Canonico in voting no.

“I don’t disagree with anyone who spoke tonight,” said Arndt, but expressed concerns that “other companies could register in surrounding communities” and that “businesses who have a choice would relocate outside of our city,” She said the biggest impact of such an increase would fall on “mom and pops” and “hurt the exact businesses we try so hard to help,” resulting in “corporatization” of restaurants and retail. She said she favored minimum-wage increases at the state and federal level, but not local.

The Colorado General Assembly in 2019 enacted House Bill 1210, which empowered local governments to establish a jurisdiction-wide minimum wage in accordance with requirements and restrictions mandated by state law. So far, however, only the city of Denver has implemented its own minimum wage, currently at $17.29 an hour.

Following a Fort Collins city election in 2021, raising the city’s minimum wage was identified as a priority, and city staff began launching studies and meeting with businesses, employees and community groups on various sides of the issue. Last October, city staffers attempted to identify wage ranges for Fort Collins with the help of a calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

According to the MIT study, a “living wage” for a single adult in Fort Collins who works full-time is $18.92 an hour, or $21.85 per adult for a family of two full-time workers and a child. It calculated that a single adult with one child would need $39.49 an hour to get by in Fort Collins, while a single adult with two children would need $52 per hour.

The plan presented for first reading Tuesday contained a pair of options. Under the first option, Fort Collins’ minimum wage would rise by a dollar a year – to $14.65 beginning Jan. 1, 2024, $15.65 on Jan. 1, 2025 and $16.65 on Jan. 1, 2026. Under the second option, the minimum wage would be $14.85 per hour on Jan. 1, 2024, $16.07 on Jan. 1,

Under both options, on Jan. 1, 2027 and each year thereafter, Fort Collins’ minimum hourly wage would rise by an amount corresponding to the increase in the Consumer Price
Index for the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metropolitan area – “provided, however, that such increase shall be not less than 2% and not more than 5%.”

Council members on Tuesday night heard from a parade of public commenters. Supporters of the increase cited spiraling rents and food prices, and said the extra money in worker wallets would be funneled back into the local economy, creating more jobs. Opponents noted small businesses’ thin profit margins, predicted that businesses and shoppers would gravitate to surrounding communities, and warned of layoffs and closures.

Council members Julie Pignataro and Kelly Ohlson and Mayor Pro Tem Emily Francis defended the idea of a minimum-wage increase.

“The fact that people can’t meet their basic necessities is not OK with me,” Francis said. Noting that inflation has sent the cost of living “soaring exponentially” in Fort Collins, she said “we do have control over one thing in the city, and that is the minimum wage.

“The most powerful thing you can do is give someone autonomy over their money and what they spend it on,” Francis said.

Pignataro added that such an increase “won’t help people buy a house, but it may help people put some money away.”

Ohlson, exasperated that the staff recommendation didn’t go even further, disputed opponents’ forecasts of businesses being forced into layoffs or closures.

“For 50 years, the fear mongering has gone on,” he said. “It just grows tiresome.” He contended that “every single legitimate study says 95% of the worst stuff doesn’t happen.

“The cute little stories are nice, but they’re not what actually happens,” Ohlson said. “They spend it, which helps small businesses.”

He said the city staff did try to help small businesses by exempting tipped workers and those employers with 20 or fewer workers, but state law prohibited it.

However, Canonico said she sympathized with business owners who have “taken on a lot” between the COVID-19 pandemic’s restrictions and government-mandated family leave. She said other CPI-related calculations could have provided “a steady increase but it wouldn’t be so impactful to businesses.” Gutowski added that her no vote was steered by considering “how much is enough for the worker and how much is too much for business.”

Peel said local businesses, which drive the Fort Collins economy, had given her “hard numbers of what it would look like if we passed this” and that regulatory reform would be a better answer. Government rules are driving up the cost of necessities such as housing, water, energy and child care, so “I’d prefer looking at that to ease their burden.”

She said local employers had told her that “we cannot take much more regulation” and that one more burden would make many of them say “I’m tired and I’ll just be done. I’ll fold up my business.”

Arndt suggested that direct financial assistance to low-income workers, such as the income-supplemental programs she had seen in operation in Africa, would be “a more fair thing for government to do it instead of telling somebody else they have to do it.”

Source: BizWest