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Missoula County, city look to boost starting library wages to $15 an hour

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Posted at 2:38 PM, Jan 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-02 16:38:50-05

City and county leaders verbally agreed Thursday to explore ways to boost the entry-level wage for Missoula Public Library employees to $15 an hour, saying the current rate of $12.38 is too low.

Missoula County Commissioners made the request during joint city-county talks and received a preliminary, yet positive response from Missoula Mayor John Engen.

“A percentage of the positions are way lower than many of us would like, and certainly less than $15 an hour, which is what we’re trying to get positions to start at,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

The Missoula City Council adopted a $15 minimum wage law two years ago for non-union city employees, saying the state’s minimum wage of $8.50 at the time represented an unlivable sum.

And while Missoula County hasn’t adopted an official resolution on the issue, commissioners over the last two years have worked to increase entry-level wages for county employees to $15 an hour.

“Two years ago, commissioner undertook moving the county to $15 an hour as its entry rate,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief operating officer. “We’ve been doing that at all of our collective bargaining agreements.”

Lounsbury described the library as fiscally constrained, given that it relies largely on two mills to fund operating costs, including wages.

One of those mills is fixed and cannot increase without voter approval, leaving the library unable to increase entry-level wages to what city and county leaders deem livable when compared to the locally economy.

While the library will likely go to voters in the coming years seeking an increase to its operational levy, the county is looking to boost entry-level wages before that time. The new library is set to open this year.

“One of the ideas, knowing the library is on the cusp of a great new undertaking, I think they’d have the appetite in the future to go back to the public, and I think there would probably be good support,” Lounsbury said. “But there’s the time between now and then and whether the city and county might find creative ways to partner to begin moving that toward $15.”

Lounsbury placed the estimated cost at around $120,000 a year, and the county is asking the city to split the difference.

Commissioners believe boosting the entry-level wage for county employees could place upward pressure on raising wages for non-government workers. The City Council has made similar arguments.

“Not only would we be doing a good thing here for folks who have these (library) jobs, but we’re helping to bring wages up generally,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It seems that’s something that we’re asked of but it’s so difficult to do.”

Library employees are members of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, and collective bargaining typically takes place around September.

Engen offered preliminary support, but said the City Council would have to approve the funds during the budgeting process, and before collective bargaining begins.

“In terms of collective bargaining, having (City) Council approve the money up front will help you a lot,” Engen told the county.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at martin@missoulacurrent.com