By Nic Garcia | THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Like many local governments nationwide pushing to lift the minimum wage in the absence of a national increase, Dallas County, Texas, approves $15 per hour for its county workforce.
Dallas County will be among the few local governments in Texas to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for its employees after the Commissioners Court approved its budget Tuesday.
The 4-1 budget vote, which included the raises, capped a multi-year undertaking by County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has pushed for the county to raise its minimum wage.
Elected officials cannot go out and talk about the importance of living wage jobs in the community if we don’t pay a living wage here at home,” Jenkins said. “It’s like a parent talking to you about the dangers of teenage drinking when they’re on their fifth beer. It’s important that we send that message and we send that example.”
The increase is mostly symbolic. The majority of the county’s employees already make more than $15 an hour. Fewer than 50 employees — mostly clerks and other entry-level administrators — will see the pay bump starting Oct. 1.
The change does not cover contracted employees such as janitors. State law forbids local governments from increasing the minimum wage for private-sector employees. The law is less clear when it comes to government contracts, county officials say.
Jenkins pledged to find a way to increase pay for contract employees next.
The county’s current minimum wage is $11.71, the estimated living wage for a single Dallasite, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.
Dallas County joins Bexar and Travis counties as well as the cities San Antonio and Austin, which also have $15 per hour minimum wages for their employees, according to data compiled by advocacy groups including the National Employment Law Project.
Houston has raised its minimum wage for construction contractors to $15 per hour. And the city of Dallas’ minimum wage is $13 an hour and is linked to the cost of living.
It’s part of a push by local governments nationwide to lift pay for workers. The national minimum wage hasn’t increased in a decade. And state legislatures, including Texas’, have also stalled on any increases. But retail workers and fast-food employees have led the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage for years. And in a few states and some of the country’s larger cities, they are winning.
“We’re excited to see local communities decide that they value their employees and that they’re able to live lives that are healthy and productive,” said Jonathan Lewis, a policy analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, a political nonprofit that has advocated for a higher minimum wage.
Advocates for increasing the minimum wage believe it will do more than to just get more people out of poverty. Some research has found that increasing the minimum wage leads to better education and health outcomes.
“The best and most efficient way to raise the standard of living and riding social ills is to pay people better — to afford their families, transportation, get the medical care they need,” Lewis said. “Minimum wage is the core of addressing these social issues we’re trying to address in other ways.”
Business groups and conservatives argue that increasing the minimum wage could hurt small businesses and poorer local governments. It could also drive up the costs of goods and services.
The county’s budget also includes a 4% increase for all salaried employees and elected officials, a decision that previously roiled the Commissioners Court.
Commissioner J.J. Koch, the lone commissioner who voted against the budget, did not address the increase for hourly workers but denounced the raises for elected officials and other line items he considered frivolous — such as replacement SUVs for sheriffs when sedans would do just fine in his opinion.
“It’s a bait-and-switch budget,” Koch said. “I hope the taxpayers hold us to the fire.”
He suggested that elected officials, worried about a new state law that puts a cap on the growth of local government revenue at 3.5% without voter approval, are keeping the budget bloated to lessen the potential effects of the restriction.
Dallas County’s revenue from property taxes — its largest source of money — is growing by 1.69% from last year’s budget, which is generating about $9 million in new money.
The county has maintained its property tax rate of 24 cents for every $100 of taxable property value for a decade. However, because property values have increased, the average homeowner can expect to see an increase of $37 from Dallas County alone.
Property tax revenue from new construction is generating more than $17 million for the county.
Altogether, the county’s budget will be $1.14 billion.
Major increases are earmarked for transportation, technology and capital needs. Compared to the last budget, the county will spend $13.8 million more on roads and bridges, $18.5 million more on technology upgrades and $47 million more on new buildings.