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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Out of the haze of the current municipal rumble, it may be easy to overlook what’s really happening at City Hall. We are locked in a serious and important debate about what will make San Diego a great city.

In the last several weeks, living wage supporters have been called selfish and insensitive because we have the nerve to ask the city to end the practice of paying janitors, landscapers, security guards and other low wage workers poverty-level wages without health care. To be clear, these are the workers that clean our libraries, care for our parks and keep our buildings secure.

I opposed the change to the strong mayor form of government, but I do believe that the advocates for this change (mostly in the business community) truly believed that their proposal would make San Diego a world-class city. They did not concern themselves with the cost of the proposal. They believed that the change was important enough to be a “city bottom line” — that we wouldn’t move forward as a city unless we made this change.

Right or wrong, these are legitimate discussions.

By the same logic, we believe that San Diego cannot be considered a world-class city if we use our tax dollars to employ people at poverty levels. There is a bottom line below which we should not go, and we are way below it. The San Diego Living Wage Coalition has interviewed hundreds of workers that provide valuable services to the city and taxpayers. They clean our parks, protect our buildings, care for our children and do many other jobs that we could not do without as a great city. They earn very low wages, don’t have health care and don’t even get paid sick days.

These workers are easily overlooked because the city’s contracting practices allow us to pretend they don’t exist. They appear as a line item on our budget as “goods and services,” not personnel. Invisible or not, these workers still have families to care for.

Each year, the city manager prepares a budget and attempts to balance the many competing priorities, interests and community needs. Yet the city budget has never attempted to include these subcontracted workers in their balancing act. Hence, there remain hundreds of “budget-invisible workers,” some of whom our city leaders walk by each day as they pass the metal detectors on the ground floor of the City Administration Building.

It gets worse. The current contracting system guarantees that our tax dollars are used to give workers poverty wages with no health care. We’ve met with a number of janitorial and security companies that don’t contract with the city because the contractors pay their employees “living wages” and provide health care. This makes it impossible to compete with low-ball contractors that submit low bids. There is something drastically wrong with a system that encourages businesses to pay poverty wages using our tax dollars.

Today, opponents are using the current fiscal shortfall as the latest reason to oppose the living wage policy. Yet they have never supported, and will never support, this proposal — not even in times of plenty.

This proposal has been more studied, more discussed, more written about and more debated than most. The San Diego Living Wage Coalition has met with workers, small business groups, impacted organizations, city staff, advocacy groups and anyone else that we could find that might have a viewpoint. Along the way, changes were made to the proposal when legitimate issues were pointed out.

The current proposal, which includes a three-year phase-in, will give the city budget process plenty of time to make sure these workers are finally on the priority list for the balancing act. The only difference now is that we will no longer allow the city to ignore these workers.

And unless we act now there will always be a higher priority. We shouldn’t be asking “why now?” but rather “what took so long?”

Most importantly, this modest proposal establishes a bottom line of decency for the way we treat the workers that work hard for this city. Living wages for our public servants is a “city bottom line”— we cannot be a truly world-class city until we treat those who serve us with a basic level of respect and dignity.

Donald Cohen is the co-founder and president of the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego-based research and advocacy organization. Cohen is the former political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He also serves on the Mayor’s Smart Growth Task Force, the Downtown Community Plan Update Steering Committee and the Affordable Housing Task Force.

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