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Brown, Cuomo unite on wage hike for City of Buffalo workers

Nearly 500 of the City of Buffalo’s lowest-paid workers would be getting a series of raises starting next year and ultimately earn $15 per hour by 2021 under a plan revealed Wednesday by Mayor Byron W. Brown.

Brown was joined by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo at an afternoon gathering in the Father Belle Community Center on the West Side to announce the increase in the city’s minimum wage. The Buffalo appearance came just hours after the governor and Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren announced a similar minimum wage hike in that city.

The stops in upstate’s two biggest cities were aimed at boosting Cuomo’s efforts for a statewide increase to $15 an hour, expected to rank as a major policy initiative in 2016 despite stiff opposition from Republicans in the State Senate.

But Brown’s proposal virtually guarantees a City Hall plan for a $15-per-hour minimum within the next six years.

The mayor said he has had preliminary conversations with Common Council members, including its leaders, “and they were extremely receptive to the idea.”

Officials did not detail how much the rate would go up each year. Those benefiting will include seasonal workers, crossing guards and some members of Local 264, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, he said.

“The timing now is good for the city, in that we have strengthened our finances to the point where we believe we have the ability to do this,” Brown said.

Brown estimated that it would cost the city a total of $9.2 million from 2016 to 2021 in order to bring the affected workers’ wages up to $15 per hour. Once fully implemented, the increase would cost the city $2.7 million in annual wages starting in 2021, he said.

The city will not receive state financial support to help cover the cost of the raises, Brown said. “We are projecting some cost savings through some efficiencies that we’re putting in place and some revenues we’re tracking in the city,” he said. “So that’s how we’d pay for it.”

Although Cuomo was on hand for the Rochester announcement earlier in the day, Brown said he was unaware of Warren’s actions. Syracuse announced a similar increase in October, but Cuomo did not then join Mayor Stephanie A. Miner, with whom he often disagrees.

While Brown’s plan is directed at city employees, Cuomo is making a broader push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage across New York State, in both the public and private sectors.

In September, the state approved an increase for fast-food workers at national chain restaurants. That $15-per-hour minimum will take effect by 2018 in New York City and by July 1, 2021, in the rest of the state.

And Cuomo just announced he is raising the minimum wage for state government employees to $15 per hour by the end of 2018 for workers living in New York City and by the end of 2021 for workers elsewhere in the state.

The state’s minimum wage is $8.75 per hour and is set to increase to $9 per hour Dec. 31.

Boost for economy expected

Cuomo framed his push for a $15-per-hour minimum as a boost for the economy that will lift more workers out of poverty, and he challenged the argument that the government shouldn’t interfere with private business in an area such as wages. He blasted fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King for paying low wages to their workers, forcing them to seek public assistance to supplement their income. He said the state spends about $700 million annually on such subsidies for fast-food workers.

“You want to talk to me about government interfering in the private sector? This is a scam, my friends,” Cuomo said to a cheering crowd at the Belle Center that included many clad in union garb.

Proponents and opponents of a $15-per-hour minimum wage disagree sharply over its effect on the state’s economy. Cuomo and his allies say it is an overdue increase that will support a wide swath of workers who are struggling to get by.

“We’re not talking about a high school kid earning gas money,” Cuomo said, arguing that higher wages will pump more money into the economy.

But E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, called the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour “uncharted territory.”

“It’s not just risky; it’s reckless,” he said. A study commissioned by the organization said a $15-per-hour minimum ultimately would cost the state at least 200,000 jobs.

McMahon argued that a substantially higher minimum wage would limit job opportunities for low-wage, low-skilled workers – who need those jobs the most – and drive up expenses for those same workers in other areas of the economy.

“This could hurt the people it is supposed to help,” he said.

McMahon said the earned income tax credit was a more effective tool to help low-income workers, as well as more robust growth in the state’s economy that would create more competition for workers.

Cuomo, in his first visit to Buffalo in several months, also took questions from reporters on the process of letting Syrian refugees into the country – a topic that has sparked controversy after last week’s deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. He also addressed progress in battling natural disasters such as last November’s double lake-effect snowstorm.

The governor reiterated his position that the federal government is doing all in its power to ensure that no terrorists enter the country as part of the global effort to resettle millions of people fleeing war-torn Syria.

“I have no reason to believe they are not telling the truth when they say we have a very elaborate and detailed and professional screening operation in place,” he said.

Cuomo said the tests applied are “fairly basic” and should be able to accomplish the goal of safely admitting those seeking asylum in the tradition of the Statue of Liberty and millions of immigrants before them.

“That’s what this country is all about,” he said. “If you believe they are not capable of screening, then your point should be that the federal government should not let in any refugees or immigrants because you can’t screen them.”

Lessons from snowstorm

But he also said he recognizes the need for thorough screening.

“The risk here is if screening is not done well and you let in one terrorist – you make one mistake – you can do a lot of damage, as we’ve seen,” he said.

Albany has had no contact with Washington on what to do with or where to resettle refugees in New York because no problems have yet become evident, he added.

While a fellow New York Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, earlier this week said that “a pause may be necessary” on Syrian refugees, the governor reiterated that the onus for the problem remains with the federal government. “If the senator has reason to doubt” screening capabilities, “he is a federal official; this is a federal system; this is within their purview to look into the system,” Cuomo said.

On this week’s one-year anniversary of the November megastorm, the governor recalled his string of six days in a row traveling to Buffalo to monitor the emergency response, quipping that “my feet did not thaw out until May.”

But he also said the state learned much from the storm that dumped 7 feet of snow on many parts of Western New York and resulted in 13 deaths. New York is better prepared for snow and other natural disasters, he said.

The Thruway, he explained, now has better ways of communicating, and decisions are more easily made in Buffalo rather than 280 miles away in Albany. More emergency equipment and goods are stored in locally strategic depots than previously, he said, while the state has noted major progress on installing weather-detection monitors at 120 points around New York that will eventually serve as its own weather service.

“It’s where we send dozens or hundreds of pieces of equipment, where we deploy hundreds of workers,” he said, “so we’re putting in our own weather-detection system. I believe we will have the most advanced weather-detection system in the country.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com