Astoria estimates a minimum wage increase from $11.25 to $12 an hour in July will cost the city an extra $62,000 in raises for the small army of part-time staff who run parks programs, along with a similar amount next year.
City leaders, facing dire budget forecasts amid the coronavirus pandemic and a difficult balancing act between providing child care and trying to reopen the heavily subsidized Astoria Aquatic Center, plan to push the state for a reprieve.
Mayor Bruce Jones said Monday that while the minimum wage increases were passed with the best intentions in better economic times, he will reach out to the region’s state legislators and Gov. Kate Brown to ask they be canceled for the time being.
“We’re in the middle of the greatest economic crisis possibly since the Great Depression, and the last thing we need the state to do is to mandate that our local businesses and local government have to increase wages across the board in a time of declining revenues,” Jones said.
City Councilor Tom Brownson concurred with Jones, calling on Astoria to bring the issue up with the League of Oregon Cities. The city can’t absorb increased labor costs by raising prices like private businesses, he said.
“I hope that we can help the state go there, and I think that other cities would jump right in on this as well,” said Brownson, who represents Astoria on the League of Oregon Cities.
Schools and cities have been partnering to offer free emergency child care for essential workers during the pandemic. But as those services end in mid-June, the city will need to ramp up its child care offerings through the ‘Lil Sprouts Academy, City Manager Brett Estes said. While child care used to roughly break even, Estes said, it faces the same challenges as the aquatic center with increasing labor costs.
Councilors agreed that child care should be the city’s first priority. But they also wanted to see limited reopening of the aquatic center, the only one in the region aside from the Sunset Pool in Seaside.
The state recently approved Clatsop County to begin the first phase of reopening parts of the economy from virus restrictions. Aquatic centers would not reopen until a third phase, and even then at limited capacity.
The operation of the aquatic center, like many other public indoor pools across the country, is not designed to be profitable. About half of the operating costs are subsidized by money transfers from the general fund and lodging taxes, which have plummeted while hotels are closed to prevent the spread of the virus. The rest comes from user fees, which have disappeared amid the outbreak and will likely be limited when the pool reopens with reduced operating hours and capacity.
The city has furloughed more than 80 part-time employees, mostly in the parks department. Part-time labor costs at the pool alone are more than $300,000, said Jonah Dart-McLean, the interim parks director. The city will have to better understand the impact of lodging tax losses on cash flow before deciding when and to what degree it can reopen the pool, Estes said.
City Councilor Jessamyn West waxed hopeful that some support will come from the federal government in a fifth coronavirus relief bill after most of the previous municipal relief went to cities of more than 500,000.
The U.S. House recently passed the $3 trillion Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which would include more support for state and local governments. But the bill faces stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“I think that’s something that we’re all hoping for, is that direct relief at the federal level, so we don’t have to hopefully have conversations about not increasing minimum wage,” West said. “I know for myself, I’m hoping to see that relief come from up above, and not down below, so to speak.”