Although the city of Santa Barbara approved a living wage ordinance last July, residents continue to debate the issue, arguing whether the living wage will damage the city’s fiscal future or whether the city’s fate depends on the ordinance’s expansion.

The ordinance provides a wage of $12.25 an hour without benefits to 211 temporary city employees of Santa Barbara. Joan Kent, Santa Barbara’s assistant city administrator, said the living wage targeted the city’s more skilled and experienced temporary employees. It covers ground maintenance assistants, recreation coordinating workers and waterfront workers; however, it excludes recreation assistants, kiosk attendants, school crossing guards and library pages.

Since regular city employees already earn over $12.25 an hour, one intended effect of the ordinance is to retain good temporary employees in an effort to reduce the so-called “revolving door” effect so common in low-paid temporary employment situations.

Because many employees would be unable to qualify for benefits, they were not offered with the wage increase, Kent said. In order to earn benefits, such as retirement plans and medical insurance, the employees would have to work a standard workday.

“Some employees don’t work enough hours to receive benefits, and the city thought a higher wage without benefits would be more worthwhile,” Kent said.

The Coalition for a Living Wage (CLW), which has 275 members, is an advocate group fighting to persuade the city to expand the current living wage to cover all temporary city employees. Lucero Marquez, a worker-organizer for CLW, said 50 endorsing organizations – including faith-based groups, Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Green Party – support an across-the-board living wage for workers in Santa Barbara.

Marquez said any employer contracted with the city and receiving funds exceeding $20,000 must pay a living wage. Up until the city implemented the ordinance, businesses such as Service Master, which receives $500,000 of city money for cleaning office buildings, was paying its employees minimum wage.

“We don’t want the city to fund this sort of activity,” Marquez said.

Marquez said CLW felt businesses that receive similarly large amounts of funding ought to pay their employees a proportional amount. She said when city employees do not receive enough money to pay the expense of living, they have to resort to federal financial aid.

“The city is paying for the labor. If we don’t pay them enough and they get federal money, then [taxpayers] end up paying them twice,” Marquez said.

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum said the low-income problem is hard to solve at the city level. She said, at the time a living wage was proposed to the SB City Council, the city was $1.5 million in debt. Timing is of great importance; economically it was not a good time to seek more money from the city, she said. Next year, the city is anticipating a $3 million deficit. Blum said the problem of low wages is not limited to Santa Barbara; the nation as a whole is enduring economic hardship.

“I don’t think the living wage advocates are as concerned with the temporary employees as they are with all people in Santa Barbara. We have to look nationally,” she said. “We have to look at how the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”

People from all walks of life were asking for living wages, Blum said. The council reviewed all the categories of temporary workers and decided on a financially feasible number to include in the ordinance. Once the guidelines designated who would receive the pay raise, the council made the ordinance permanent and decided which employees would have the opportunity to earn more as they worked more.

UCSB economics Professor Ted Bergstrom said the living wage ordinance would make costs for the city higher than the private sector. Therefore, the city would be providing fewer services because they would have less money to spend on projects.

Bergstrom said people share two point of view when considering a city requirement to pay higher wages. Fewer people would get hired, he said, but the city would have a better selection of skilled employees.

“It might not be good news for those that aren’t the greatest workers,” Bergstrom said.

Bergstrom said arguing that taxpayers are paying these particular employees twice does not make sense because workers making at least minimum wage are ineligible to receive federal aid.

Although the living wage would have an effect on select individuals and their employers, Bergstrom said, ultimately, the city would not sustain a significant financial blow.

“A living wage for 211 people really isn’t that big of a deal,” he said.