In Living Wage Battle, Vacca Remains Unconvinced

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Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared in this week's Norwood News, out today.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. at a rally last week in support of the living wage bill. (Courtesy Borough President's Office)

The City Council held a long-awaited hearing on a controversial living wage bill last Thursday, with both sides of the debate testifying about the potential effects of the legislation in a session that lasted over two hours.

The Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act, sponsored by Bronx Council Members Oliver Koppell and Annabel Palma, would require developers of projects receiving taxpayer subsidies of more than $100,000 to pay workers $10 an hour with benefits, or $11.50 without.

The bill, which sprang from the living wage fight that derailed a plan to develop the Kingsbridge Armory into a shopping mall, has the support of every Bronx Council member, with the exception of James Vacca, who had said he was waiting for a hearing on the issue before taking a side.

“He’s wary of any legislation that might prevent jobs, and I’m not sure he’s convinced,” said Vacca spokesman Bret Nolan Collazzi, in a phone interview after the hearing.

“We’re not planning on signing on at this time,” he said.

The legislation currently has the support of 30 Council Members; 34 are needed to override a mayoral veto.

The assertion that a living wage mandate would kill jobs was put forth in a report released by the city’s Economic Development Corporation last week. The 44-page study concluded that requiring employers to pay a higher wage would ultimately stifle commercial development and job growth.


“That is a cost we cannot afford to bear,” said Tokumbo Shobowale, chief of staff for Robert Steel, Bloomberg’s the deputy mayor for economic development, in his testimony at last week’s hearing.

“Despite our initial recovery from the recession, unemployment remains too high and private investment remains too fragile to erect additional barriers to job creation,” Shobowale said.

Supporters of the living wage legislation debunked the EDC’s study, saying several of the economists that worked on it, from Boston-based consulting firm Charles River Associates, are known living wage critics, and that the report was “rigged” to comply with Bloomberg's well-known opposition to a wage mandate.

“We knew the findings of this rigged study long before it was released,” reads a statement from Living Wage NYC, the coalition that's campaigning for the bill. “That's because the Bloomberg administration has openly opposed living wage standards. This is the same administration whose failed economic development policies have resulted in higher rates of homelessness, higher rates of hunger and higher rates of long-term unemployment.”

Two years ago, Bloomberg butted heads with Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and a coalition of other Bronx advocates over plans to fill the long-vacant Kingsbridge Armory, where the mayor was pushing to build a shopping mall.

The project was eventually killed in the City Council after the developer, Related Companies, would not guarantee to pay workers there living wage, despite the fact that the group was to receive millions in taxpayer funded credits.

Diaz testified before the crowd at last week’s Council hearing, calling passage of the bill “a matter of economic justice.”

“It is the responsibility of elected officials to use taxpayer dollars in a manner that leads to the best return on investment for those same taxpayers,” he said in his speech.

“When billionaire developers beg for taxpayer handouts to make their projects work, they must do better by the people they hire.”