Voters in this mountain town who thought the minimum wage debate would be settled after November’s election have seen no such thing.

In the two months since ballots were cast for Proposition 414, the intensity of the wage discussion has only ratcheted upwards, spurring frantic meetings among business owners and fiery social media conversations.

The issue took another turn this week as two groups advanced alternative wage proposals toward the ballot box and the city council dais, while a third defended the November initiative.

The newly created group Bridging Flagstaff took to the podium at Flagstaff City Council Tuesday to press elected officials to modify the wage law by slowing down the incremental increases up to $15 an hour.

And on Thursday, the citizens and business group Elevate Flagstaff turned in what by its count was 8,845 signatures for its initiative to scrap the new law’s $15-per-hour-by-2021 provision altogether.

Both groups say Flagstaff’s minimum wage measure, which passed 54 percent to 46 percent in November, combined with the newly approved state minimum wage increase, has led to a dire situation for businesses and needs a course correction.

While Proposition 414 supporters continue to stand behind the measure’s solid approval by voters, turnout in council meetings and thousands of signatures show the scaled-down options have gained traction. Here is the background behind them.

ELEVATE FLAGSTAFF

Elevate Flagstaff came onto the scene in mid-November as a group of businesses, nonprofits and citizens. Rand Jenkins, owner of the marketing agency Mountain Mojo Group and former owner of the Green Room, has stepped up to be a face for the group. In December, Elevate formed a political action committee to support the “Sustainable Wages Act,” a proposal to amend Prop 414 by striking language that would increase Flagstaff’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021 and bring tipped workers up to that pay grade. Instead it aligns the city’s minimum wage increases with the state’s for the next four years. After that, Flagstaff’s minimum wage would get bumped up to 50 cents above the state’s.

In order to put the measure to voters, the group needed to collect 4,411 valid signatures by this Monday and then convince the Flagstaff City Council to call a special election for May.

Jenkins said a group of 20 to 30 different business owners weighed in on the amendment language, but wouldn’t share what businesses those were or which ones were most vocal.

The businesses are so afraid of publicly aired threats to boycott any establishments opposed to Prop. 414 that they don’t want to stick their neck out, he said. Jenkins also said he didn’t have information available about Elevate Flagstaff’s major contributors or how much the political action committee has raised. The deadline for the political action committee to turn in its financial information to the city clerk's office is Sunday, after which it will be publicly available.

Despite the group’s advertised autonomy, it was the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce that on Thursday was doing final signature collection and counts and then delivered the signatures in support of Elevate’s proposal to Flagstaff City Clerk Elizabeth Burke. The Chamber also opposes the new state minimum wage of $12 by 2020 -- $10 took effect Jan. 1, 2017. Prop. 414 will take effect July 1 at $12 in Flagstaff.

Burke has 20 business days to check the signatures for completeness, then they are verified by the county recorder.

While others participated, Jenkins said he was the one who made the final decision on the initiative language, which was then written by Phoenix-area lawyers that Elevate hired.

Without the time to have a comprehensive discussion on a proposal that may be more amenable to many different sectors of the community, Jenkins said the group’s primary aim was to halt the July local wage increase to $12 an hour that businesses most feared.

“We decided… it would be better if we amended what we felt was threatening to businesses in the short term,” Jenkins said.

He acknowledged that one of the top three concerns he has heard wasn’t Prop 414’s end goal of $15 an hour, but the accelerated process to get there caused by the overlap in state and local measures.

When asked why Elevate Flagstaff’s proposal didn’t simply cut out the Prop 414 language that requires Flagstaff’s minimum wage to be $2 above the state’s, causing the accelerated timeline, Jenkins answered that there were too many voices at the table. The final proposal would allow businesses to adjust while still increasing worker pay, he said, later adding that there is still “a lot of room for improvement,” even on Elevate’s proposal.

The amendment also would cut out language that gives minimum wage enforcement jurisdiction to a city office, instead passing that authority along to the Arizona Industrial Commission. Businesses felt they had no ability to defend themselves and didn’t like the idea of being investigated by an agency supported by fines it issues, Jenkins said.

Joe Bader, treasurer of the pro-414 Flagstaff Needs a Raise, countered that the current law in fact does provide for an administrative hearing process overseen by a judge. The decision by the judge can be appealed to the Flagstaff Municipal Court.

Elevate Flagstaff earlier this month released a list of 165 businesses that support its proposal to amend Prop 414. Drew Hulls, owner and manager of Coconino Auto Supply, is one of them and said voters who approved the local minimum wage increase didn’t consider the consequences. Everything from pizza to gas is going to go up and jobs will be lost, Hulls said. He said he went from a staff of 11 to a staff of 10 due to the first step of the wage increase and will be raising prices as well.

“Hopefully people just realize maybe this isn’t a smart idea, even if you’re for it or against it, it’s going to hurt a lot of people in Flagstaff,” Hulls said.

BRIDGING FLAGSTAFF

Bridging Flagstaff entered the jostle of minimum wage advocacy last week when economist Paul Deasy represented the group at a Council meeting.

Bridging is trying to find a middle ground that acknowledges support for the $15 minimum wage in 2021 as well as business concern about rapid wage increases before then, Deasy said.

“This issue is tearing this community apart,” he said. Friends he’s known for years are so divided over the issue that they’re becoming enemies and the threats are becoming physical, as well as verbal.

Bridging Flagstaff has not filed paperwork with the Flagstaff City Clerk’s Office to become a political action committee and Deasy said the group is not raising money to support its cause. It’s just a group of individuals who are concerned about the local minimum wage issue and think there’s a way to create a compromise, he said.

Bridging Flagstaff wants to delay Prop. 414’s $2-above-state-minimum-wage requirement until after the local wage has reached $15, he said. The group is also looking at putting an inflation cap on the local law to protect businesses against major wage hikes in the case of high inflation.

A local provision requiring paid sick leave is being considered by the group as well, in case that provision gets thrown out at the state level as the law is under fire by several business groups.

Without the time or money to wage a signature campaign to put its proposals on the ballot, Bridging made its plea directly to Council, Deasy said.

But Council’s hands may be tied by Arizona law.

State law allows the Arizona Legislature and local governments to make changes to voter initiatives, but those changes must further the will and intent of the voter. Deasy said adding Bridging’s changes to the law would do that. Voters wanted a gradual increase to $15 an hour in the local minimum wage, they weren’t expecting both the state and the local minimum wage laws to interact in the way they have and boost the local wage so quickly. Numerous employees and businesses who voted for Prop. 414 have told him that they wouldn’t mind delaying the $2 an hour above state minimum wage requirement, if it helped businesses adjust, he said.

FLAGSTAFF NEEDS A RAISE

Flagstaff Needs a Raise, the group that proposed Prop. 414, plans to support and fight to keep the initiative as is, Bader said. It’s what voters approved and it’s what Flagstaff’s poorest workers need.

Flagstaff Needs a Raise has posted numerous comments to its Facebook page describing Elevate Flagstaff’s proposed changes as a “gutting” of Prop. 414 and urged voters to not sign Elevate’s petitions.

Bader said he had not seen Bridging Flagstaff’s recommended changes for Prop. 414, but said that Flagstaff Needs a Raise would challenge and fight any proposed changes to the new law.

The Flagstaff Living Wage Coalition, a sister organization and major funder of Flagstaff Needs a Raise, initiated the fight for a local minimum wage in 2015, when the group filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Legislature stating that the Legislature could not override a 2006 voter initiative that gave local governments the right to set their own minimum wage.

Flagstaff Needs a Raise was created shortly after the Living Wage Coalition won their court battle against the state. Flagstaff Needs a Raise was able to collect enough signatures to put a local wage issue on the November ballot. Two Flagstaff councilmembers, Eva Putzova and Celia Barotz, supported the Living Wage Coalition. Putzova was also involved in Flagstaff Needs a Raise.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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Education/Business Reporter

Suzanne writes about education and business. She covers the local school district, charter schools and Northern Arizona University. She also writes the Sunday business features.

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