Thursday March 28, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- A proposal by a Select Board member to raise the minimum wage in Bennington only for employees at big box retail stores received a cool response from other board members.

Jim Carroll raised the issueat Monday's Select board meeting, saying he wanted to begin a discussion on raising the minimum wage for larger retailers as a way to boost economic activity and help people out of poverty. He said his research turned up other municipalities around the country that have done so and seen success.

"I looked at other municipalities, states, cities, who tried to effect economic development and what they did was they did it through a livable wage. It's been done in cities all over the country," Carroll said. "In smaller places like Bennington it was a livable wage that was only applied to big box retailers."

The current minimum wage in Vermont is not suitable for covering the cost of renting a home, providing food or raising children, Carroll said. New employees at Walmart are provided with forms to complete to receive public assistance, he said.

Many people will view the proposal "as hostile to business," Carroll said. But the policy would boost wages in Bennington alone by $2.84 million, most of which would be spent in the local economy. That number has not been independently verified by the Banner.

Despite referring to Walmart several times, Carroll said his policy was not specifically aimed at the company. "I'm not picking on Walmart. They are the prime example as the largest retailer in American history," he said. "We currently subsidize Walmart workers to the tune of $1 billion a year."

The reaction from outgoing Select Board member Jason Morrissey was swift and fiercely negative.

"That's assuming the jobs would stay here," Morrissey said about the increased payroll. "I just want to be on the record saying, I guess as my final act as a Select Board member, that may be the worst idea I've ever heard on the Select Board. I don't think it supports economic development. I think it supports poverty."

Morrissey, who was attending his last meeting after not seeking re-election earlier this month, urged his colleagues to reject the proposal.

"I hope this municipal government never supports segregating wage," he said. "I don't think it's legal, by the way."

Carroll said the policy he envisions would apply to workers at large retail chains like Walmart who are 18 and older. Morrissey said legal question issues would quickly arise based on age discrimination.

The proposed policy would only drive retailers out of Bennington and to surrounding towns, Morrissey said.

"That doesn't promote economic development. That promotes leaving Bennington," he said. "Do you think for a minute that a developer is going to look at Bennington, Vermont?"

Select Board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr. said Carroll's proposal would reinforce a negative perception that local and state officials have been working to dispel.

"Vermont still has the reputation of being anti-business, that doors are not open to business. No matter what we have tried to do it hasn't worked. When we do things like what we're proposing here it sends a signal, because it will make newspapers all over the place see it and it's not going to help us lose that reputation that our doors are closed to business up here. It's tough enough, as we know, when we look at our local businesses," Krawczyk said.

Bennington Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd said the town does not appear to have the authority to adopt such a policy. It may be possible to seek a change to the town's charter in the Legislature that would grant the town that authority. However, that could be seen as a direct challenge to the Legislature's own authority, he said.

"I'm not even sure a charter change would work," Hurd said. "We can change our charter to do just about anything our board and the people desire, but the Legislature has to approve it. If the legislature thinks it flies in the face of its authority, they will deny it."

Hurd said he would ask the town's attorney to looking into options for adopting such a policy, despite what appeared to be a tepid, at best, reaction from the board.

Morrissey, who will have to continue the debate as a resident if he chooses to, said workers earning the minimum wage have a tough time making ends meet. But adopting a policy like the one proposed by Carroll will further hamper business in Bennington.

"I'm not saying people making minimum wage have it easy. People making $12 an hour probably don't have it easy. But, this kills business. This is the wrong message, in my opinion," Morrissey said.

Forcing a higher minimum wage from companies that can afford to pay more will take pressure off of everyone, Carroll argued.

"There's no free ride. When you have low wages, those people have to go for assistance. And who's paying that? You and everybody else," he said. "At least we could, responsibly, both as United States citizens and Vermont citizens, lessen the burden that we're all carrying because we have to provide on a humane level the basic necessities for these people. Let's lighten the burden for all of us and lift these people out of poverty."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami