Not everyone who works for Bozeman makes enough to live in city limits. One of Bozeman’s elected leaders says he thinks a minimum wage for city employees could change that.

During a Bozeman City Commission meeting June 4, commission newcomer Terry Cunningham said he wants a minimum wage for city employees set at $15 an hour within the next three years. He said it’s part of a city’s responsibility to ensure it pays staff a living wage.

“We have taken a leadership position in areas like gender pay inequality and I think showing leadership in this regard on a citywide basis is something that we should do,” Cunningham said.

It was a statement city staff and other commissioners didn’t see coming.

Right now, Bozeman follows Montana’s set minimum wage. City governments don’t have the power to create citywide minimum wages, but some have taken a stance for city employees.

For a Bozeman employee minimum wage to have a chance, it would take the mayor or a commission majority to say it’s a policy change conversation worth having on a future meeting agenda.

Cunningham said in a later interview he plans to ask the commission to take up the issue Monday night during the body’s opening FYI.

Cunningham said he thinks city employees earning less than $15 an hour are the minority. If the commission picks up the issue, he wants to know how many employees would see the bump and whether hours or jobs would see cuts to cover the higher wages

Bozeman Communications Coordinator Melody Mileur said before staff can move forward on any of those questions, they need the signal from the commission as a whole.

A lot of Bozeman employees already negotiate their pay and work conditions through unions called bargaining units. There are four of those unions in the city including police, fire, teamster and Montana Public Employees Association.

Mileur said there are 110 city roles that don’t fit into one of those categories. That includes commissioners, management and part-time employees. There’s 49 short-term or summer workers and two seasonal employees not tied to a union.

Pay for city staff varies a lot between job titles.

As of Friday, Bozeman’s job listing set pay for lifeguards at $10.50 an hour. A custodian makes between $13.31 and $15.66. Other gigs like a building inspector have hourly wages as high as roughly $27.

Deputy Mayor Chris Mehl said he has questions around how a minimum wage would impact the city. He said he’s likely to support the idea, “but you have to look both ways before you cross.”

Bozeman’s low unemployment rate means the city is competing to hire and keep good workers, Mehl said. He said people who do their job well save the city money on the ground they cover and decisions they make.

“We know we’re losing employees in parks and water to other Belgrade or private sector jobs,” he said. “The answers are all different but the reason is the same. They have the same house, family and schools, but are making $3 more there.”

In 2015, Missoula became one of those cities that created a minimum wage for its employees.

Jordan Hess, a Missoula council member, said the minimum wage unfolded for two reasons: some wages didn’t meet the city’s cost of living and Missoula wanted to keep good workers.

Missoula’s minimum wage started at $12 an hour for non-union employees and landed at $15 this year. At the time the issue passed, the Missoulian reported the first increase impacted three employees.

Hess said the council approved the wages with little opposition and a small impact on their general budget.

“City employees are the most important resource we have. We knew we needed to be able to recruit and retain good quality employees,” he said.

Commissioner Jeff Krauss said Cunningham’s request came a bit out of order from how issues are typically discussed, which he said starts with the commission then heads before city staff to see how it would work.

Bozeman recently passed it’s first strategic plan and Krauss said a minimum wage conversation could pull staff from some of the priorities on that list. But, he added, it could be an interesting conversation.

Commissioner I-Ho Pomeroy didn’t say where she stood on the idea, adding that first she wants to see whether there’s enough commissioners interested in talking about whether the minimum wage could work in Bozeman.

Cunningham said he hopes that conversation happens “fairly quickly” as the city reviews its budget for the next year.

“I’m not sure we’d be able to have this proposal start at the beginning of the fiscal year or later, but I’d like us to be able to react to this when crafting a budget,” he said.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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