RICHMOND -- The City Council on Tuesday directed staff to craft three potential minimum wage hikes for the Nov. 4 ballot that would give local voters the chance to pass the highest minimum wage in the region.
The council unanimously supported directing staff to develop three options for the minimum wage, of $11, $12.30 or $15 per hour. If the council approves one of the rates within 60 days, it would go before voters in November.
"This is an economic recovery strategy program for Richmond residents," said Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, who proposed the resolution. "A minimum wage raise is pro-business, pro-jobs and pro-community."
The proposed hike would include exemptions for Richmond businesses with fewer than 10 employees and for those operating less than two years in the city that have fewer than 26 employees. Beckles said the City Council could raise the minimum wage with a majority vote, but she would rather the voters decide.
Councilman Jim Rogers noted that a raise approved by voters would be difficult to amend if it proved to have adverse effects on unemployment or business growth in the city.
"Why would we do this as a ballot initiative if it's good public policy and four of us support it?" Rogers asked.
"The simple answer is that it's important that people participate in this democracy, that they feel empowered," Beckles said.
Councilman Corky Boozé, a frequent critic of Beckles and her progressive allies, signaled his support as well, saying "it's time Richmond gets a raise."
With Boozé seemingly on board and only Rogers and Councilman Nat Bates, a favorite among local business leaders, expressing skepticism, some iteration of a minimum wage hike stands a good chance of appearing on the 2014 ballot.
The lowest proposal, $11 per hour, would be a significant increase over the current state rate of $8 per hour, and the highest in the Bay Area. San Francisco's $10.74 minimum wage is currently the region's highest; San Jose's rate is $10.15.
Berkeley and Oakland are among the other cities currently in talks about raising local minimum wage rates.
The state's minimum wage is set to bump to $9 per hour in July and to $10 per hour in January 2016.
Business leaders have already expressed skepticism.
"Further increases beyond the state's minimum wage could force businesses located in Richmond to make do with current staffing and hinder additional hiring," Katrinka Ruk, executive director of Richmond's Council of Industries, wrote in an email to the City Council this week. "Worst yet, it might create cutbacks in employment."
Ruk recommended the city commission a feasibility study to explore potential effects on economic growth and employment before putting the issue before voters. The chamber of commerce has also expressed concern that a hike in the minimum wage could depress the local economy and cost the city jobs.
The most recent data for Richmond, from August, showed the city's unemployment rate was 11.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while California's November unemployment rate stood at 8.5 percent.
About 20 residents addressed the council on the issue, with most expressing support. But some questioned the wisdom of hiking the minimum wage in a working-class city surrounded by neighboring cities where labor costs could be lower.
"Richmond does not live in a vacuum," said resident Don Gosney. "Businesses will pass along the costs to the consumers, who have more options to shop than consumers in San Francisco."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.