- Associated Press - Thursday, December 18, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Workers in Kentucky’s largest city will earn at least $9 per hour after the Louisville Metro Council voted Thursday to raise the minimum wage.

Louisville becomes the first city in Kentucky - and the first in the South - to raise the minimum wage above the federal level of $7.25 per hour, according to the National Employment Law Project. Louisville joins 20 other local governments across the country.

The vote follows months of intense debate about the benefits of higher wages for the poor versus the impact on local businesses and the city’s ability to attract new jobs. Democratic Mayor Greg Fischer said he will sign the ordinance into law.

“It is a balanced compromise solution that gives hardworking families a raise while minimizing the risks of job losses in our city,” Fischer said.

The increase means workers earning the current minimum wage will get a 24 percent raise and could earn $3,640 more per year before taxes if they work at least 40 hours per week. But many workers are exempt, including farm workers, waiters and others who work for tips and employees of small businesses whose average gross sales are less than $95,000 per year.

“I am one of the many teens in this city and across the country that work part time not to buy high priced tennis shoes and clothes but to assist in making sure our families have their most basic needs met,” said Ivan English, a 10th-grader at Western High.

He said his family has depended on his minimum wage job after his mother’s chronic illness meant she could no longer work.

Minimum wage ordinances have gained steam across the country this year as Democrats sought to press the issue during a contentious midterm election cycle. In Kentucky, Democrats in the state House of Representatives made it their top priority and Alison Lundergan Grimes made it a central part of her campaign for U.S. Senate against Republican Mitch McConnell.

Grimes lost to McConnell by 15 percentage points, and House Democrats failed to get their proposal past the Republican-controlled state Senate. But the issue found favor in Louisville, where Democrats control the Metro Council and only need a simple majority to pass legislation.

“We know that we just can’t keep waiting on our representatives in Congress to get this done,” Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton said. “And, sadly to say, our representatives in Frankfort, either.”

The ordinance will almost certainly be challenged. Louisville’s business community, which includes Yum Brands Inc. and the 539,000 mostly minimum wage workers at its KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell restaurants, has opposed the wage. They argue the council does not have the legal authority to tell businesses how much they should pay their employees.

“Our concern is we become an island,” said Sherrie Weber, human resources director at the tortilla chip manufacturer Mesa Foods that employees 250 people in Louisville at $8.50 per hour. “We would consider, if we had to stay competitive, relocating our business to another county or state if need be.”

It was companies like Mesa that convinced the mayor this week to promise a veto of a minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour. He said raising the wage to $8.75 per hour was high enough to help the poor and protect the city from job losses.

After much debate, council Democrats agreed to a $9 minimum wage with assurances from the mayor’s office that he would not veto it.

Republicans warned a higher minimum wage would hurt Louisville’s economy by encouraging businesses to go elsewhere.

“If we’re going to have Louisville compete, we have to compete on a level playing field,” Councilman Kevin Kramer said. “We can’t raise the minimum wage in Louisville and ignore what happens around us.”

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