Groundskeeper Eric Cerda, working at Reid Park, could be among those who would benefit from a raise for lower-paid city employees, to just over $13 an hour, and perhaps eventually to as much as $15. Cerda has worked for the city for a year.

Hundreds of the lowest-paid employees working for the city of Tucson could see a sizable raise in July.

The proposed pay increase would increase the base hourly wage to just over $13 an hour — more than two dollars over the current minimum wage set by the state.

It would be the first step in a three-year plan backed by a majority of the City Council to eventually raise the minimum wage paid to city employees to $15 an hour.

As it stands, some full-time city employees make as little as $11 an hour.

City officials estimate that the raises for such employees would cost $1.8 million in the first year, with goal of bringing an estimated 894 employees — both permanent and temporary — to the new minimum wage. However, officials estimate it would cost an additional $3.6 million to readjust city salaries for employees making slightly more — often more experienced employees working in the same job and, in some cases, their immediate supervisors.

One issue, however, that has repeatedly cropped up during council discussions is who exactly should be making $15 an hour, or roughly $31,200 a year. Giving raises to full-time, permanent employees including groundskeepers, street-maintenance workers and office assistants seems to have solid support with the council, but that support wanes as the council is asked to consider raises for temporary, summer positions given to high school students.

An estimated 330 of 894 people making under $15 an hour are classified as permanent employees, with an additional 558 employees categorized as non-permanent employees. The remaining six people making less than $15 an hour are on the City Council itself, where salary can be increased only with voter approval.

Several members of the council struggle with raises for temporary employees working in various departments, but the city’s human resources director, Ana Urquijo, explained at a council meeting in February that those classifications are not as simple as it looks.

“We have some employees that are classified as non-permanent who keep coming back either to instruct a course or the KidCo program in excess of 10 or 12 years and earning under the $15 an hour wage,” Urquijo said.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild was skeptical, saying the city should prioritize raises for permanent employees.

“Perm(anent) and non-perm(anent) are two totally different categories, I think there should be some sensitivity for long-term non-perms,” Rothschild said.

But he said that the priority should be given to raises for full-time, year-round employees.

Figures out of the City Manager’s Office show that while the 330 full-time employees making less than $15 an hour are slightly more than one-third of the total number of city employees, they account for a majority of the $1.8 million set aside for the raises.

Giving raises to 558 temporary employees would cost the city roughly $546,000 in the first year of the program.

GETTING TO $30K

When Councilwoman Regina Romero first took office in 2007, the economy was in terrible shape.

The council took drastic measures to balance the budget, encouraging some employees to take early retirement, furloughing others and suspending raises, including cost-of-living increases.

“We were trying to save the patient,” she said.

In the last three years, the council has been able to give cost-of-living adjustments to all employees as well as cover some of the increasing health-care costs.

But across-the-board increases don’t necessarily mean the same thing to every employee, Romero says, noting raises are more important to those making less than $30,000 than employees making six figures.

“This is the year we need to correct this,” she said. Thirty-one-thousand “is still below the average wage in Arizona.”

Romero said part of the strategy is to better compete with the private sector, noting that the city is losing experienced workers to other agencies and private employers.

A recent salary survey performed by city staffers found 29 job classifications that were below what the private sector is paying.

After the council backed targeted raises for police officers, firefighters and 911 operators, Councilman Paul Cunningham said he wanted to turn his attention to helping the lowest-paid employees get a raise.

“This was my idea, to try to get all of our permanent employees to $30,000 a year,” Cunningham said.

However, even after the first year of the program — if adopted — it will be difficult for some employees to pay their bills.

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“They are still only making $27,000 and $28,000 a year. And they aren’t taking all of that home,” he said, noting employees have a number of deductions, especially for health insurance.

The two-term Democrat has been lobbying for the council to give more significant raises, while others have told him that the city needs to focus on other priorities.

“There is a push and pull between those who believe we can’t afford it, and those who believe we can afford more,” Cunningham said.

LIVABLE WAGES, NOT POLITICS

Councilman Steve Kozachik rejects suggestions that the proposal to offer raises is part of a larger political gambit by Romero, who is one of several candidates running for mayor, and Cunningham, who is asking voters for another term on the council.

Councilmember Richard Fimbres, re-elected in 2016, was the third member of the council to pen a letter to the city manager in January asking to move forward with a proposal to give raises to the lowest-paid employees working for the city.

“It is an extension of a conversation we’ve been having for the last 2½ years,” Kozachik said.

The city has slowly been adjusting salaries for the last three fiscal cycles, he said, noting that the conversations on compensation were pushed backed as it recovered from the Great Recession.

“When you are in a deficit situation, it is a relatively easy conversation,” he said.

But the two-term councilman, who is not up for re-election this year, said there are competing budget issues ahead and said other fiscal priorities must balance against the promise of raises.

“We can’t give raises and call it good,” Kozachik said.

While the council has given city staff direction to include the three-year plan to increase wages to $15 an hour for employees, it has not formally voted on next year’s fiscal budget. It is expected that the council will discuss a revised proposal for raises in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix City Council voted to increase the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour last week.

The Arizona Republic reported that the program would give raises to roughly 150 employees at a cost of roughly half a million dollars annually.

Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at jferguson@tucson.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson

Reporter

Joe has been with the Star for six years. He covers politics as well as the city of Tucson and other municipalities in Southern Arizona. He graduated from the UA and previously worked for the Arizona Daily Sun.