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Milwaukee County wage requirement push offers opt out

By Beth Kevit

A Milwaukee County supervisor proposing to dictate wages at certain developments hopes his opt-out provision will prevent push back caused by a similar effort this summer.

Supervisor David Bowen’s proposal, which is not yet final, would require vendors to pay prescribed wages to their employees on county contracts. It also would require developers buying land from the county to pay those wages to construction workers.

But, he said, it would only apply to jobs created by a project, such as a hotel’s employees, if the developer accepted county assistance. That, Bowen said, could help the county avoid the type of backlash it encountered when it tried to dictate wages at a hotel proposed for Wauwatosa’s Innovation Park campus.

“It won’t be a policy,” he said, “where it would just apply to every piece of land that we have.”

The prescribed wages would be more than the poverty level for a four-person family as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a news release. According to DHHS’ 2013 poverty guidelines, that threshold is set at $23,550.

Bowen said he is not sure when he will present the proposal to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. He said he has not talked about specific details with Teig Whaley-Smith, County Executive Chris Abele’s economic development director.

Brendan Conway, Abele’s communications director, said the county executive was not prepared to comment on the proposal because he has not seen a finalized version.

But Supervisor Steve Taylor said he doubts the opportunity to opt-out and forgo county assistance would be enough to make the proposed policy palatable to developers.

“What you don’t want to do,” he said, “is start putting more red tape.”

Taylor cited the example of the recently approved extended-stay hotel planned for the Innovation Park. The board attempted to prescribe wages for hotel employees, but objections from Abele and the developer undid that effort.

But Bowen said he sees a vital difference between the Innovation Park hotel effort and his proposal.

This policy would be broad, he said, and the Innovation Park proposal only would have applied to one hotel. And, he said, the county did not offer any incentive, such as discounted land, as an incentive to comply.

Supervisor John Weishan Jr., who pushed for the wage requirements at Innovation Park, said he supports Bowen but wants to see the proposal in print before deciding whether to cosponsor.

Prescribed wages, Weishan said, ensure the county gets a return on its investment if it offers financial assistance.

“It’s no different from a bank asking for interest on a construction loan,” he said.

Linking prescribed wages and financial assistance, Bowen said, sweetens the deal for both developers and the county.

“It would be in the county’s interest,” he said, “to incentivize developers to follow community benefit policies.”

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