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Our View: Sick-and-safe keeps getting pricier

At least now we have a first thing to cut from next year's city budget. Last week the Duluth City Council created a new position, a "compliance officer" to oversee and enforce the city's new, still-controversial, and still-not-needed earned-sick-...

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Cameron Cardow/Cagle Cartoons

At least now we have a first thing to cut from next year's city budget.

Last week the Duluth City Council created a new position, a "compliance officer" to oversee and enforce the city's new, still-controversial, and still-not-needed earned-sick-and-safe-time ordinance.

Councilors had passed the ordinance in May, recall, even though they had no idea whatsoever what it might cost taxpayers. Worse, as Mayor Emily Larson revealed in an interview in November with the News Tribune Editorial Board, no councilor even asked her or her administration about the potential costs.

The hit to taxpayers begins at about $140,000, as it turns out, which was the amount the mayor included in her 2019 budget proposal for the compliance officer, printed materials, and the unenviable task of educating Duluth's less-than-thrilled local business community about the ordinance's burdensome requirements of them.

While the costs to businesses to document and report their compliance didn't seem to be much of a consideration in City Hall, the upfront cost to pay an overseer is now set. The sick-and-safe-time officer will be paid between $62,232 and $79,920, as councilors approved. So hardly the less-than-full-time position the mayor talked about in November.

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The $140,000 allocation this year will be from the city's general fund, the mayor said. That means it's taxpayer dollars that won't be available then for more-worthy priorities such as public safety (the city has been struggling to fill openings on its police force, as the News Tribune reported in the fall, in part because it hasn't allocated the resources to offer more-competitive wages) and fixing streets (the city no longer has a street-improvement fund and instead is looking to the state Legislature for permission to create a new sales tax for road work).

While Duluth taxpayers can hope fewer of their dollars will be needed in coming years for sick-and-safe-time compliance, as the requirement becomes entrenched and less city oversight is needed, it seems at least as likely that costs will only rise. Consider Minneapolis, where doubling the number of full-time city workers who enforce a similar ordinance, from three to six, was proposed late last year. Consider, too, that this is government. And bureaucracy. Does spending ever go down?

Yes, of course full-time workers in Duluth should have the ability to bank paid days off to use when they're ill, when a family member is ill, or when they have to deal with an emergency related to their safety or the safety of a loved one. But the reality is, as previous editorials have pointed out, most full-time employees in Duluth already have that ability. An overwhelming 90 percent of employers who responded to an online survey indicated they're offering earned paid time off already, as a City Council-appointed Earned Sick and Safe Time Task Force reported in 2017. So what problem is this expensive "solution" addressing?

"One of our many questions for councilors was, 'Who is going to pay for the enactment and enforcement of this burden upon employers?' Their answer was (they would) figure it out later," Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Ross wrote to his membership last week. "Well, it appears they have figured it out. They will soon add to the city payroll what will be a full-time administrative position. This additional staffing expense comes at a time when our beloved city of Duluth is struggling mightily to pay for basic city service employees, such as our courageous firefighters, our brave police officers, and our hardworking snowplow drivers. To add insult to injury, the same businesses which will incur additional payroll expenses associated with the ordinance will also pay more city taxes for the enforcement of the ordinance. It is a cruel compounding of the pain and suffering."

The whole ordinance can be reconsidered. The next time city leaders talk about raising taxes or bemoan a lack of funds for storm cleanup, to hire and competitively pay police officers, to fix streets, or to address other basic services that residents ought to be able to expect and depend on, they can look instead at cutting spending - beginning with this unneeded, expensive, and burdensome-on-our-businesses sick-and-safe-time ordinance.

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