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Roddey does about-face on 'living wage' question

Thursday, October 26, 2000

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey has softened his stance on "living wage" legislation, saying yesterday that the county can afford to pay its employees at least $9.12 an hour, as the proposed ordinance would require.

"The 'living wage' will not affect the county budget," Roddey told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial board.

The statement contrasted sharply with Roddey's words of a month ago, when he complained that the Democrat-controlled County Council's proposed "living wage" ordinance would exacerbate the county's existing financial problems and force the layoff of 30 county employees.

In contract talks with more than a dozen labor unions, the Roddey administration has put offers on the table that would give every county employee at least $9.12 an hour, county Manager Robert Webb said during the meeting with the editorial board.

Roddey still has a major concern about the ordinance, though.

Introduced last month by four of the council's 10 Democrats, the $9.12-an-hour minimum wage would apply not only to the county government but to businesses and nonprofit groups that have contracts with the county.

The ordinance would devastate the network of 400 nonprofit human service agencies which, under contracts with the county government, help, among others, mentally ill, aged or drug addicted people, Roddey maintains.

"If the 'living wage' proposal requires that every contractor with the county pays [at least $9.12 an hour], many of those nonprofits will simply go out of business," Roddey said. "We estimate now that they would collectively have to lay off about 850 people."

The proposed ordinance includes a three-year phase-in provision for nonprofit groups, but Roddey advocates a complete exemption.

Roddey acknowledged that pay levels in the human service fields were too low but said the county couldn't fix the problem, since almost all of the money for the contracts comes from the state and federal governments.

"The state is saying, 'We're not going to pay more,' " Roddey said. "This is one of those fundamental areas of danger. The state is afraid that it cannot just [provide money for raises for human service workers] for Allegheny County, that they have to do it for the whole state. And the state is saying if they do that, it would use up so much of the rainy day fund, they would be required to raise the income tax."

The Republican chief executive opened the door for a compromise with council Democrats on the "living wage" ordinance, though.

"If they want to propose some sort of 'living wage' proposal that would exclude the nonprofits and pass some sort of resolution that we all go to Harrisburg and lobby for an increase in [human service] funds, that might be something we can talk about," he said.

In the meantime, the chief executive is devoting much of his attention to his proposed 2001 budget, which he delivered to council last week.

Three of the county's 11 row officers -- Sheriff Peter DeFazio, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and Treasurer John Weinstein -- are lobbying council for more money than Roddey proposed to allocate to them.

"The sheriff is asking for $2.5 million more, I guess so people won't escape," Roddey said, jabbing DeFazio for an Oct. 18 incident in which a man convicted of robbery and aggravated assault escaped from two sheriff's deputies in Downtown while on his way to court for sentencing. The man, Barry Williams of Hazelwood, was recaptured about 12 hours later in Rankin.

Roddey presented figures showing that DeFazio's payroll has swelled from 120 to more than 200 over the last four years, while the rest of county government has eliminated almost 900 positions through attrition and layoffs.

The chief executive said he also anticipated tough negotiations with Zappala, who is seeking $1 million more than the $9.6 million that Roddey proposes.

"I don't know that anyone has ever said 'no' to Stephen Zappala," Roddey said. "He's used to getting what he wants."

Weinstein is asking for $300,000 more to fill four vacant positions, but Roddey is balking.

"I think he has more people than he needs now," the chief executive said.

Also during yesterday's meeting with the editorial board, Roddey contrasted the Democrats on the County Council with the Democrats in the state Legislature, saying he has found much more cooperation in the state capitol than in the county courthouse.

"The difference between the council and the Legislature is remarkable, because it is almost nonpartisan when you get down [to Harrisburg] and explain your case," he said.

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