- Associated Press - Thursday, February 16, 2017

PHOENIX (AP) - A voter-approved measure that raises the minimum wage to $15 an hour in Flagstaff is deeply dividing the community, placing the city at the center of a national debate over income inequality.

People on both sides of the debate packed a city council meeting Tuesday, where discontent was voiced adamantly from those supporting and opposing the measure. More than 70 people addressed the council, and an overflow room had to be set up to accommodate the large crowd.

The council was deciding whether to hold a special election in May on an initiative to repeal the minimum wage increase, Proposition 414. The council voted to wait for the next general election in November 2018.

Flagstaff resident Elisha Dorfsmith was among those who attended the meeting, which he described as “emotional and intense.” He said his biggest concern about the law is its lack of exemptions that he thinks should apply to entry-level and part-time employees. Dorfsmith said he believes entry-level jobs will eventually dissipate as a result of the law.

“It’s not even a left or right divide, it’s a community divide,” Dorfsmith said. “People are just at each other’s throats.”

The law passed by voters in November raises the minimum wage to $12 an hour this year and to $15 an hour by 2021.

It goes above and beyond Proposition 206, a statewide ballot measure also approved by voters in November that raises the minimum wage to $10 this year and $12 by 2020.

The group Elevate Flagstaff petitioned to amend a local law and keep the city’s minimum wage at the state level.

Flagstaff city councilmember Jim McCarthy said the council will ask the legal staff to try to make an amendment to delay the implementation of the Flagstaff increase to $12 an hour.

“There is a bit of risk in that but I think it’s the right course of action,” McCarthy said. “Even among the people that support the measure say it’s too soon.”

Supporters of the minimum wage increase cite their hopes of giving lower-paid worker more opportunity in one of Arizona’s most expensive real estate areas.

James Holeman, who employs seven workers at his cigar and beer store in Flagstaff, acknowledges that a quick increase to $12 an hour will be intense, but says continuing strong support for small local businesses should keep everyone afloat.

“Giving some of the working poor a little better chance … just being fair, I think people have been underpaid for a very long time, Holeman said.

Armando Bernasconi, the CEO of Quality Connections, said his nonprofit that assists people with disabilities to find housing and employment is already experiencing negative effects from Proposition 206 within the business and outside it. He expects it will become harder for his organization to find jobs for people if the scheduled increase to $12 an hour takes place this July.

“It’s greatly impacting the people we serve which are the most vulnerable in our community,” Bernasconi said. “It’s really disheartening.”

With Congress unable to agree on an increase in the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, numerous states and cities have taken action on their own. In this election, Arizona, Colorado and Maine voters approved measures phasing in $12 minimum hourly wages by 2020. In Washington state, where the minimum wage is $9.47 an hour, voters approved a measure raising that to $13.50 an hour by 2020.

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