Our view: Don't let mandate jeopardize street-improvement plan
The Duluth City Council opted to wait until after the election to consider an ordinance mandating paid days off for Duluth workers — all Duluth workers, even, possibly, part-timers, seasonal employees, and interns.
Whether or not politics remain a consideration, councilors can continue to hold off on an ordinance and mandate — that is, if they hope to make good anytime soon on a sales tax to fund street repairs, a plan demanded by Duluth voters last week when greater than 75 percent endorsed it.
The chances of getting that new tax through the Republican-controlled Minnesota Legislature, which has the final say, would be greatly improved with an endorsement of the tax from Duluth's business community. But Duluth's business leaders may withhold that support as the only chip they have to play in their opposition to the burdensome-to-businesses sick-and-safe-time mandate.
"This thing will be dead in St. Paul if not for the business community's support," Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross said in an interview before Tuesday's election with News Tribune Editorial Board members. "So the mayor has to say, 'Is earned sick and safe time worth jeopardizing this 25-year streets initiative we're trying to get through the state Capitol?'
"And you may say, 'Well, where's the correlation?' When you have no leverage and you finally have one — which is earned sick and safe time and this half-percent transportation sales tax coming at the same time — you use what you can," Ross said.
"We applaud (businesses) that can (provide paid sick days)," Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said, also in an interview with Editorial Board members. "But is this something that needs to be mandated on every one of our businesses, even if they can't afford to do it?
It's a good question, especially on the heels of a 31 percent water rate increase in Duluth, a 9 percent electric rate increase, revaluations of properties that are driving up property taxes by as much as 30 percent, and the coming unknown costs from Superior Street's reconstruction and the Steam Plant's conversion.
Like Duluth's residents, businesses can only be asked to give so much. While fixing potholed streets is a basic city service and something voters Tuesday clearly declared as a do-it-now priority, workplace benefits are appropriately left to employer-employee negotiations. Government intervention here is government overreach. Calling on elected leaders to pick up the slack where union negotiators fail is inappropriate.
"It's the piling on of everything," Stokes said. "You add all of that onto a potential sick and safe and then, 'Oh, by the way, there's also talk about a possible minimum-wage increase.' ... Many of our businesses are just saying, 'We cannot continue to have a little bit here, a little bit there, a little bit there piled upon us and expect us to continue to operate.' They're at the point where they say, 'We have to make our balance, so if we end up having something mandated on us, does that mean some other benefits are going to have to go away? Or some employees?' ...
"We want to be seen as a business-friendly community that supports economic development," she said. "By continuing to pile things on, we're not that way."
Despite the many public meetings hosted by the city's Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force during the past year and other opportunities for public input, the business community doesn't feel its concerns have been heard. Proponents have been outspoken, vocal and quite visible. Businesses can't afford to be or they risk offending and losing customers. So councilors inundated with emails and other contacts of support may not be accurately gauging true public sentiment.
Worse, there's a sense that the intent all along was to establish this ordinance, never mind any concerns. City Council President Zack Filipovich, in July 2016 when the task force was being established, said, "We are trying to know what the issues are and where the community stands or where the community is at before suggesting what to do about it." But the task force, in its recent recommendations to the City Council, said it was created "for implementing (earned-sick-and-safe-time) policies."
Want another good reason for Duluth councilors to hold off on an ordinance and mandate? Similar sick-and-safe-time laws in the Twin Cities were met with legal challenges that remain unresolved. City councilors here can resist thrusting Duluth into the center of expensive litigation.
And speaking of expensive, as an Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force member opines elsewhere on today's page, implementing and enforcing a new ordinance promises to be pricey — and that's with the city already facing a budget deficit and spending cuts.
Fixing streets is the higher priority. Duluth voters made that quite clear on Tuesday. As much as Duluth workers deserve and ought to be able to expect fair benefits, anything that jeopardizes the plan for that can be rejected.
Disclaimer: News Tribune Editorial Board Citizen Representative Terese Tomanek is also a member of the City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force. To avoid a conflict of interest, she abstained from determining the views in this editorial.
ON THE AGENDA
The Duluth City Council is scheduled to discuss the recommendations of its appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force a week from tomorrow, on Monday, Nov. 20. The discussion is scheduled for 6 p.m., an hour ahead of the regular council meeting in City Council Chambers, Duluth City Hall.
READ THE REPORT
The Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force’s 10-page recommendation report can be read at duluthmn.gov/media/542930/esst-report-final-recommendations.pdf.