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November 4, 2020

Portland $18 emergency minimum wage kicks in Dec. 3 after referendum passes

Photo / Rebecca Milliken Voters wait in line outside of East End Community School in Portland Tuesday. The city's voters overwhelmingly approved referendum questions that raise the city's minimum wage, strengthen protections for renters and seek to develop more affordable housing in the city.

Businesses in Portland will have to start paying workers $18 an hour on Dec. 3, the emergency minimum wage approved by the city's voters Tuesday.

The hike in the minimum wage — Question A on the ballot — was among four of six referendum questions relating to business practices approved by the city's voters, several of them opposed by business, nonprofit and city government leaders.

People First Portland, which collected signatures to get five of the referendums on the ballot, called passage of a higher minimum wage, rent control and development restrictions aimed at increasing affordable housing  "a victory for the working people who make up the core of our community."

But business groups and developers said the new ordinances will hurt, with the most immediately painful being the emergency minimum wage.

"Unfortunately, tough times just got tougher for Portland's small businesses," said Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. "With the rising COVID 19 case count and the recent rollback on business operations like bars and tasting rooms, the passage of Question A will be an irreversible blow to jobs and livelihoods."

Sixty percent of Portland voters approved the city minimum wage hike. It increases the wage to $15 an hour by 2024, but also provides for time and a half during declared states of emergency. With the current minimum wage $12 an hour, that means $18 an hour for the city's hourly workers. 

All the measures approved Tuesday with the exception of the facial-recognition and marijuana store expansion were opposed by business, nonprofit and city government leaders — including Mayor Kate Snyder and seven of the city's nine councilors — who said the moves will put a damper on development and economic growth. Voters rejected a measure to restrict short-term rentals, which was in line with the major business group opposing the other measures.

The new ordinances passed in the referendums can't be changed by the city council for five years; they can be changed by referendum within those five years.

The vote results were:

  • Question  A, $15 an hour minimum wage; time-and-a-half emergency wage, 60% for, 40% against;
  • Question B, Facial recognition ban, 65% for, 35% against.
  • Question C, "New Green Deal for Portland," 57% for to 43% against;
  • Question D, Rent control and tenant protections, 57% for to 43% against;
  • Question E, Restrict short-term rentals, 53% against, 48% for;
  • Question F, Eliminate cap on marijuana stores, 54% for, 46% against.

People's First Portland said its questions, A through E, were about quality of life for those in Portland left behind by its recent economic boom. "This is what we can do when we make politics about our shared human vulnerabilities," the group said on its Facebook page today.

Minimum wage hike

The emergency minimum wage hike is in effect until both the city and Maine states of emergency or over — it applies no matter which government has declared a state of emergency. Once the city's minimum wage reaches $15 in three years, the emergency minimum wage will be $22.50 and emergency overtime $33.75 an hour. The ordinance calls for a $1 a year increase beginning Jan. 1, 2022, through Jan. 1, 2024, with cost of living hikes each year after that.

"Portland small businesses and nonprofits will now have to either cut back on staff, move out of Portland or close their doors entirely," Hentzel said. "Come December, Portland will have the highest minimum wage in the country at $18 per hour and overtime with the emergency pay is $27 an hour. Higher than New York City, Seattle, San Francisco. Higher than anywhere."

A news release from the chamber, citing the fact a referendum would be needed to change it, said that process is "expensive and divisive," but there is no other "quick" solution other than that process, meaning the affect on many businesses will be felt before it could be reversed.

The current wage of $12 an hour "is simply not enough to afford rent, food and health care," People First Portland said. "The minimum-wage worker is not the stereotype that you’ve heard: most of us are adults between 25 and 54; more than half are women; 28% have children; we span industries such as manufacturing, health care, and construction; and on average we provide 52% of our family’s total income.

"Raising the minimum wage not only helps us workers — when we have extra money to spend, local economies also get a boost," the group said.

The Maine Center for Economic Policy has estimated that  23,500 Portland workers will benefit from the new rates, 56% of them women and 30% people of color.

Green New Deal, rent control

Question C aims to get more affordable housing built in the city as well as increase climate and energy efficiency, though developers have said it will make it too expensive and restrictive, and they'll likely build elsewhere.

Question D establishes rent control and other tenant protections, something voters rejected in the past, but the rapid increase in rents made in an issue again.

Building a Better Portland, the political action committee that formed to oppose questions C, D and E, said Wednesday morning it was disappointed with the outcome of C and D.

"We know our city faces a number of challenges, including affordability," said David Farmer, treasurer for Building a Better Portland. He said the ordinances will "create new challenges as our community tries to create more affordable housing."

“We are committed to working with city leaders and other stakeholders to ensure that our city remains a great place to live, work and raise a family," he added. "While we disagreed with the policies put forward through Questions C, D and E, we also know that voters went to the polls with the best intentions for our city. The hard work of building a better Portland will continue for all of us.”

Short term rentals

Portland voters last night agreed to keep the status quo on short-term rentals. Question E would have eliminated about half of the city's short-term rentals and would've made it harder for new ones to be established.

“Portland made it clear last night that well-regulated short-term rentals are an important part of our community," said Willy Ritch, a spokesperson for Portland short-term rental hosts. "They provide a unique opportunity for homeowners to welcome visitors to Portland while allowing short-term rental hosts a way to help pay their mortgage, property tax and maintain their homes. Short-term rentals keep tourism dollars right here in our community and this referendum would have eliminated most of them."

He said that short-term rentals hosts will continue to work with elected officials to ensure "smart and responsible short-term rental regulations so we can continue to welcome visitors to our great city.”

Airbnb last month said Maine ranks No. 5 as a destination for people planning 2021 post-pandemic travel. Maine Airbnb hosts raked in $100 million in 2019 from some 534,000 guests, according to a January report from the company.

Question E was opposed by hundreds of short-term rental hosts, elected officials and many small business owners, who said the industry gives tourists, a major factor in the city's economy, more options and also provides income for city property owners that allows them to live in Portland.

People First Portland said their suggested restrictions would add an estimated 400 long-term rental units in the city. "When housing is treated as a commodity, short term rental properties, like those listed on Airbnb and VRBO, take away our long term housing," the group said. "Returning those units to Portland residents helps us house more people."

No cap on marijuana stores

The new ordinance eliminates any maximum on stores that sell marijuana, as well as restrictions on how close they can be to each other.

The City Council last month suspended the 20-store cap, allowing all 36 applicants to continue in the pipeline towards getting a license to operate in the city. The ordinance means that another cap won't be instated. The city also had a 250-foot buffer between stores and this decreases it to 100 feet. Those who get licenses still have to get permits from the state, find a location, and more.

David Boyer, who led the Yes on F campaign, said the amount of stores should be dictated by the free market, just like other retail is.

Facial recognition ban

Facial recognition technology was banned in August by the City Council. The use of the technology has been said to unfairly targets people of color and is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union as well as other civil rights organizations.

The new ordinance approved Tuesday, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, differs from the city ordinance in that it allows those who feel they're targeted by the technology to take action against the city and also bans its use as evidence in court.

Mayor Kate Snyder and seven of the city's nine councilors opposed Question B, though, saying it will undo work the city did to come up with its ordinance, which went into effect in September.

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November 5, 2020
Really, really a sad day when when small business owners and land owners are told what they have to do in regards to the most basic of business decisions. Good job Portland voters, you just started your own demise as you will see employers cut positions and the quality of living will go down. There’s no reason Portland Maine should have the highest min wage in the country - and there’s no excuse for telling land owners (good ethical landlords) how much they can charge in rent- if anything now that the Min wage is so high rents should go up to help offset the land owners who are facing higher taxes- and less incentives to provide long term stable house. Good news is I’ll just turn all my apartments into ABNB short term rentals. I’ll make more more money, less headaches and it will allow me to take care of my family. It’s sad that it will most likely have to come at the cost of removing my existing long term (under current rent value I will add since I’ve never taken advantage of my units superior location, quality and size). Good job Portland, you just did yourselves in. Let’s see how many people who actually provide jobs and housing will choose to work with this utterly insane city.
November 4, 2020

The emergency minimum wage will force businesses to either relocate to the suburbs or close. Not good for the future of the City of Portland.

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