Politics & Government

Public agencies also will have to pay more if Tacoma minimum wage climbs

Public sector agencies are crunching the numbers ahead of the November vote on raising the minimum wage to see how bigger paychecks might affect their budgets.

Voters wanting to increase wages in Tacoma will have two options — $12 an hour by 2018 or $15 immediately.

Some agencies say they can absorb the costs of a $12 minimum wage in their existing budgets, but the $15-an-hour scenario could mean cuts.

Metro Parks Tacoma, for example, would pay an additional $504,192 through 2018 under the $12 proposal. With the $15 option, it would pay $1.6 million more each year, totaling about $4.7 million through 2018. The agency’s two-year operating budget is about $140 million.

“If it’s approved, we will start exploring alternative budget scenarios,” Metro Parks spokesman Michael Thompson said about the $15 possibility. “It’s significant enough where I can’t really give you a good idea of what that would look like.”

Of the 1,255 employees Metro Parks employed in 2014, 866 made $12 an hour or less, and 166 made between $12 and $15.

Employees who would be affected by either proposal are seasonal and part-time workers, such as those at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Northwest Trek Wildlife Park and those who help with recreation programs and summer parks maintenance.

Pierce County government, Tacoma Public Schools and the city of Tacoma said many of their workers who make less than $15 an hour also are part-time and seasonal.

The effects of either proposal on the Pierce County budget would be insignificant, because most employees already make more than $15 an hour, spokesman Ron Klein said.

“As far as our salaries, the effect is de minimis,” he said.

In September, the county had 123 employees paid less than $12 and another 308 that made more than $12 but less than $15. They are largely temporary workers, such as law students helping at the Department of Assigned Counsel, flaggers for construction season, seasonal grounds maintenance workers, extra workers during elections and employees who manage summer recreation programs.

More than three-fourths of the county’s workers making less than $15 are Tacoma-based and would benefit from the proposals. The county estimates raising their pay would cost $33,834.

The city of Tacoma’s budget would be hit harder. The city would spend an extra $260,000 in 2016 if the $15 proposal passes, according to its budget office. Of the city’s 3,634 positions, 134 make less than $15.

“Although it is a large number, it’s not problematic in the big picture of our $3 billion biennial budget,” city finance director Andy Cherullo said.

On the contrary, raising the minimum wage to $12 wouldn’t cost the city anything extra. The 22 positions that earn less than $12 now are expected to make at least that much by 2018, when the $12 benchmark would take full effect.

Tacoma Public Schools hasn’t calculated the costs of either proposal. Instead, district officials split the difference and budgeted for an increase to about $13.50, for which they said they’ve planned an additional $125,000.

“If the costs are greater than anticipated, we will have to find savings elsewhere in the budget by holding non-essential positions or holding off on expenses,” Rosalind Medina, the school district’s chief financial officer, said via email.

She said the positions wouldn’t directly affect classrooms. It might be that educators wouldn’t hire a secretary or administrator if a vacancy came up, she said. Or they might not buy supplies or equipment they’d planned to this year.

Among its workforce of 4,917, the district has 431 people who earn less than $12, and another 588 who make more than that, but less than $15. Those positions represent crossing guards, some custodial workers, food services, some coaches and some teacher aides.

As for state employees working in Tacoma, it’s not clear how they would be affected by an increase in the local minimum wage, said Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office.

In an email to The News Tribune, Lavallee wrote that the situation in Seattle — which passed a $15 minimum wage ordinance in June 2014 — “has not been definitively resolved” in terms of whether state workers there must be paid according to the new law.

Lavallee said the attorney general’s office couldn’t share any advice it has given state agencies on the matter, as that information is subject to attorney-client privilege.

Officials at the University of Washington Tacoma aren’t sure they’d have to comply with a new Tacoma minimum wage, spokesman Michael Wark said. If voters approve a higher wage, he said, UWT administrators will decide how to proceed.

After Seattle passed its wage ordinance, officials at UW Seattle were similarly unsure whether the law applied to them and deliberated for months over whether to follow it.

Last month, the university said it would start paying workers in accordance with the city law, raising the minimum wage on campus to $15 an hour starting in January 2017.

About 300 hourly employees at UWT make less than $15 an hour. More than 200 of those are student employees who make less than $12 an hour, Wark said.