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Pinellas leaders favor ‘living wage’ for lowest-paid workers

— Hoping to ease the burden of poverty, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch on Tuesday proposed increasing the minimum wage for county employees to $12.50 an hour, the so-called “living wage.”

Welch asked County Administrator Mark Woodard at the commission’s meeting on Tuesday to see what needs to be done to increase the wages of the county’s lowest-paid employees. He said it would affect about 38 of the county’s approximately 1,800 employees.

Welch’s proposal comes as the city of St. Petersburg instituted a $12.50 minimum wage as of Jan. 1 for all full-time employees and part-time employees with at least five years of service .

“The county has focused on poverty reduction the last couple of years,” Welch said. “It’s a good step for the county; it actually walks the talk.”

Further, Welch asked Woodard to encourage the county’s other constitutional officers to do the same, including the supervisor of elections, clerk of court, property appraiser and tax collector.

“The premise is if you’re working for Pinellas County you should not be paid poverty or near poverty wages,” Welch said. “Here’s a chance for us to lead by example.”

Commissioners agreed with Welch’s proposal, which Chairman John Morroni said would cost the county about $150,000 a year.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a no brainer,” Morroni said. “To bring people up to a living wage is the right thing to do, whether the other constitutionals (offices) want to join in or not.”

The $12.50 rate comes from living wage calculations done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Pinellas County, Welch said. The Florida minimum wage was raised to $8.05 on Jan. 1.

Welch also suggested the county consider a policy to encourage employers with significant contracts with the county, to pay their employees a living-wage minimum. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have required paying living wages for contracts of $100,000 or more, though Welch said the regulations to mandate it seemed cumbersome.

Rather, he proposed some kind of an incentive program that might give contractors credit in competitive bids, for instance. He said possibilities need to be researched.

Marroni favored the idea, but wasn’t sure about making it a mandate. He said the county should hold off “until we get our own house in order.”

Welch, who lives in St. Petersburg, said he has spoken with Mayor Rick Kriseman, who negotiated the $12.50 an hour minimum wage with the city’s employees’ union last summer. “I thought his idea was a good one,” he said.

Also Tuesday, commissioners agreed to increase indigent dental care for adults by $500,000, as part of the county’s $10.2 million health program. The extra money will help expand the program to people who earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Previously it included only those below 100 percent.

Dental services, including pain relief, cleanings, sealants, extractions and some restoration work, are provided through the county’s six Florida Health Department offices, three clinic sites or the mobile medical unit. The facilities treated about dental 200 patients in November and 256 in December, according to agency Director Claude M. Dharamraj,

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