Waging war
Summit to explore ways to achieve livable wage


by Missy Votel

For members of the local labor pool, there’s good news and bad news. Although local paychecks and job opportunities may be getting fatter, they’re still slim in comparison to those elsewhere in the state and nation.

“We’ve seen a significant change over 10 years ago,” said Bobby Lieb, executive director of the La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership and the Durango Chamber of Commerce. “Low-income jobs have decreased considerably and higher paying ones have increased significantly.”

In fact, job opportunities and income levels in La Plata County are increasing at a rate faster than the state or national average, he said.

And now for the bad news: despite recent gains, local income levels still fall shy of state or national averages.

“Although we’re gaining fast, we’re still lagging behind,” he said.

For many local workers, this comes as no surprise. “Wendy,” 24, who came to Durango by way of New York, has had six jobs over the last year and a half – and as many as three at one time. A high school graduate with some college, she said she initially had difficulty finding jobs that paid enough for her time. Her first two jobs, both in food service, paid $6.50 and $7 an hour, respectively. She quit those and now has two jobs – a full-time one in retail sales and a part-time one at a restaurant – that pay her enough to survive. Wendy, who works six days a week and rents a downtown house with two others for $1,100 a month, considers herself relatively lucky. Although she has no health insurance, she is able to live comfortably within her means, she said.

“I don’t have a car,” she said. “My biggest expenses are dog food, cell phone, rent and food.”

Nevertheless, she feels for the most part, Durango jobs don’t pay enough to offset the cost of living, and when asked about the possibility of staying in Durango long term, she shakes her head.

“I really don’t think Durango jobs pay enough,” she said. “You either have a ‘real job,’ or you’re a college student working part time. There’s not a lot for those of us in the middle.”

Defining livable wage

The quandary of the local wage earner has not gone unnoticed. This Friday, community members and officials will gather at Operation Healthy Community’s annual La Plata County Summit at Fort Lewis College to discuss “livable wage” and how better to provide it.

“We’re going to try to identify what our perceptions of the situation are and strategies to address it,” said Kim Newcomer, executive director for Operation Healthy Communities.

The nonprofit organization holds the summits annually to discuss topics of local and regional importance based upon community surveys.

“The topic was identified by the community,” she said. “The community is really saying, ‘We feel there is a problem with the livable wage.’”

Newcomer admits the topic is a big one to tackle in one day, with several factors that influence it, from the economy to affordable housing, availability of child care, and social issues.

“We were a little hesitant because it is such a large issue, but when the community speaks so loudly about an issue, we felt like we should listen,” she said. “The goal is to come out with measurable actions and find ways in which we can start to tackle it.”

According to Operation Healthy Communities’ 2005 report, “Pathways to Healthier Communities,” a livable wage is one that addresses the essential needs for basic living, such as housing, heath care, child care and proper nutrition. According to the group, a single person renting a 1 bedroom apartment in Durango in 2003 (the latest year for which numbers are available) would need to make a yearly salary of $21,236. The salary increases to $39,332 for a single parent of one renting a 2-bedroom, and $54,121 for a family of four renting a 3-bedroom. At the same time, the average annual wage in La Plata County in 2003 was $33,743.

“The general theme is that folks aren’t paid enough to compensate for the high cost of living,” said Newcomer.

Doing the math

The biggest single barrier to closing the disparity between wages and living costs is the high cost of housing, according to Lieb. Numbers released by the Durango Area Association of Realtors put the median home price in Durango for the first quarter of 2006 at $394,000, a 27 percent increase over the same period last year.

“It’s a symptom of a ‘successful’ community,” Lieb said. “Any community that is in high demand, it is a problem.”

Of course, this is little comfort for the working class with designs on buying a home here. Given these numbers and assuming a 20 percent down payment on a 4 30-year fixed mortgage at 7.5 percent, this would equate to a $2,200 monthly payment – out of the reach of most average wager earners.

“The reality is, when you do the math, it’s not that easy,” he said.

He also noted that the problem is no longer applicable only to Durango. Outlying areas also are growing more expensive, with Bayfield median homes showing a 32 percent increase in a year, from $212,750 to $280,000.

“The cost of living is no longer a Durango issue, even Bayfield is getting difficult,” he said. “The cost of land and cost of construction are out of control.”

The end result of all this, he said, is that workers end up moving farther away from their jobs, which in itself leads to a myriad problems.

“Workers then either have to commute, which leads to more traffic, or we end up losing our work force and having a higher job vacancy rate,” he said.

Looking for answers

Finding solutions, however, may prove difficult.

One approach, which was recently used in Santa Fe, is to legislate an increase in the federal minimum wage, which now sits at $5.15 an hour. Lieb said this approach makes sense from the standpoint that not all economies are the same, and as such, should be treated individually. However, he said it also could produce unintentional consequences, such as causing wage stagnation, creating a greater influx of workers from outlying communities, putting smaller companies out of business, and discouraging new businesses from coming in. He also noted most jobs in Durango probably pay over the minimum wage, anyway.

“I don’t know if it’s a possible long-term solution,” he said.

La Plata County Commissioner Wally White agrees that livable wages are a problem. However, he feels it is not the commissioners’ role to mandate a wage increase. “I’d love to see a livable wage,” he said. “but I think that’s up to the private sector.”

One area where commissioners do have a say is in affordable housing, although making provisions for it has proved a difficult task in itself.

“This is a problem we’ve been dealing with since I moved here 27 years ago,” said White. “Even with what I earn, which is $52,000 a year, it would be damn hard to afford something. If I had to buy my house today, I couldn’t afford it.”

White said the county has taken steps to address the issue, most recently with the creation of the Regional Housing Authority, which is still getting off the ground. He said he is partial to the idea of inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to provide a certain percentage of affordable units.

“It certainly won’t make developers happy, but I know it has had success in other communities,” he said. “We’ve got to do something. This is just one of the tools that’s out there, and to me, it is one of the more workable ones.”

Like Newcomer, he said he is hopeful that this week’s summit will generate more possible solutions.

“Hopefully, the summit will produce some ideas,” he said, adding that the alternative could be much more dire. “I hope we can come up with something better in the next few years, or we’ll end up like Aspen or any community where workers aren’t living there – and I don’t think anybody wants to see that.” •



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