Kansas City's minimum wage will rise to $13 an hour over about four and a half years under an ordinance that council members approved Thursday, although there are questions whether it could withstand a legal challenge.
The ordinance, which makes the city the only one in Missouri to approve a wage higher than the state's current $7.65 minimum, had the backing of low-wage workers, who burst into applause after council members and Major Sly James voted to approve it. The measure would apply to Kansas City, Missouri and not its sister city in Kansas.
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Councilman Scott Wagner, who said he was certain the city would be sued, added that sometimes it becomes important to "take a stand" even though it is "precarious."
"Is this one of those times when we make a statement?" he asked. "I believe it is."
Andrew Kling, the spokesman for Communities Creating Opportunity, a faith-based community organizing nonprofit in Kansas City, called the vote an "important first step forward" on a "profoundly moral issue." He said the mayor and council "proved they are some of the few elected officials in the county with the moral courage to confront the sin of poverty wages."
But business groups are questioning the legality of the ordinance, which calls for businesses with more than 15 employees to begin paying at least $8.50 an hour on Aug. 24. The minimum wage would rise again on Jan. 1, 2017, to $9.82 an hour, and be followed by annual increases to $10.96, $11.98 and finally $13 an hour in 2020. Cost-of-living adjustments would be made in subsequent years.
Workers who are 17 or younger are among those who would be exempted.
"The Missouri Restaurant Association and a broad based business coalition feel that the ordinance is illegal and that this is a discussion that should be had at the state level," said Shannon Hickey, the executive director of the Greater Kansas City Restaurant Association. Other groups weighing in include the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which has written that the measure "is not permitted by existing law."
The city has been under pressure to act quickly because a petition group has collected enough signatures to force a public vote in November on a $15 an hour minimum wage. James described $13 an hour as "a number that might stop this from going to a ballot."
Another time pressure is the result of a bill that would bar municipalities from approving a minimum wage higher than the state's unless they are in place before Aug. 28. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill last week, but city officials have noted it could still re-emerge in a veto override session in September.
The legality of a Kansas City ordinance is further muddied by conflicting interpretations of a contested 1998 law that banned counties and cities in the state's most-populated counties from enacting minimum wages higher than those set by the state. A St. Louis judge has found the law violated the state constitution based on procedural concerns, but the absence of a higher court ruling has led to sweeping differences in interpretation of whether the 1998 law still stands.
Councilman Ed Ford, who cast the council's sole no vote, said the measure would give workers "false hope" because the city didn't have the authority to pass it.
"We will bear the brunt of all the lawsuits and legal shenanigans," Ford said.
Because of the pressure to act fast, the city made it clear it wouldn't be in a strong position to enforce the measure when it takes effect.
City Manager Troy Schulte said he would move for a $250,000 appropriation for the current fiscal year, which runs from May 1 to April 30, for enforcement staff and education. But Phillip Yelder, the director of human relations for the city, said there wouldn't be time to hire staff.
"We are doing what we are doing because we believe in the moral aspects of raising people up," James said.
Calls for higher wages have led to protests in several cities nationwide. Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco are gradually raising their minimum wage to $15 an hour. St. Louis also is considering a measure.
This story dateline has been corrected to Kansas City and corrects an earlier version to say that the increase happens over four and a half years, rather than five and half years.