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David Straz’s $15 minimum wage goal isn’t so cut and dry

The Straz Center for the Arts pays some of its employees less than that.

Tampa mayoral candidate David Straz has been talking up his support for a $15 minimum wage, vowing to raise city workers’ pay if elected.

It’s a sentiment that goes over well in Tampa where a majority of voters are Democrats and tend to support livable wages.

But is he talking out of both sides of his mouth?

Straz amassed his wealth as a banker in Wisconsin and then here in Tampa. He’s used his wealth for philanthropic endeavors in his home state and for the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in New York City. He’s also a major donor for Tampa’s performing arts center, earning him naming rights to the non-profit that’s now named for him, the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.

That organization does not pay its workers a $15 minimum wage.

A job posting from about a month ago shows a host position paying $11.50 an hour.

While Straz’s position as a donor does not give him direct authority to control wages and other budget decisions, there’s a perception that his stature with the organization should give him at least some influence.

Asked whether he’s pushed for increasing the Center’s minimum wage, the Straz campaign wouldn’t say and offered only a brief statement.

“David is passionate and proud to support the arts and will continue to do so. He is not involved in day to day operations at the Straz Center,” spokesperson Jarrod Holbrook wrote in a statement.

Holbrook also reminded that Straz is putting his money where his mouth is on the campaign trail. All of his campaign staff are paid at least $15 an hour, Holbrook said.

The Straz Center also confirmed in a statement that Straz is “not involved in the operations of the organization,” but did not elaborate on its employee pay.

Straz has said publicly that he would increase wages for city workers “over time.” In a Facebook post in December, Straz wrote that he would “encourage the private sector to follow his lead.”

Asked by a commenter whether he had paid his banking employees $15 an hour, Straz didn’t answer directly, but said he always paid his employees “higher than other banks” and added “that’s how he was able to attract and retain the best employees.”

Asked how he would pay for increased wages in the city, which city officials estimated would cost about $4 million a year, Straz said the increases would be done incrementally to minimize impact, though recent ads touting his wage goal don’t mention the incremental plan. Straz said he would fit the additional personnel cost into the budget after conducting the audit he promises to cut out “fluff.”

Straz has also said he would look for ways to cut the city’s $1 billion budget 10 percent, which would be a hefty undertaking especially if he’s considering also increasing wages.

Straz also claimed in his earlier Facebook post that he was the only candidate making a $15 minimum wage a campaign priority.

While that’s partly true – none of the other candidates have included that specific detail in their campaign platforms – other candidates do support the concept.

“I support incrementally raising the minimum wage in the city for city workers to $15 an hour if that’s possible,” said City Council member Harry Cohen. “The City Council looked at that and saw that it would cost about $4 million so it’s going to take some time.”

Cohen is the City Council representative on the Straz Center Board of Trustees. Like Straz as a donor, he does not have a say in that position on wages for lower level employees.

Jane Castor, the frontrunner in the race, also said she supports gradually increasing the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“Folks that work hard and play by the rules shouldn’t have to work multiple jobs to pay their bills and feed their families,” Castor wrote in a statement.

Mike Suarez who is also a City Council member, said he was in favor of raising wages in concept.

“Whether that’s $15 is up to economists,” Suarez said. “Whenever you have wages going up it does help the overall economy.”

Dick Greco Jr. made a similar statement.

“I do support a $15 minimum wage for city employees,” Greco said. “I think it starts with leadership with the mayor and I think that would be something I would recommend to other government agencies even though I would not have control over their decisions.”

Greco said he couldn’t issue a blanket promise to make it happen because it boils down to whether there’s room in the budget, but that he would try.

Ed Turanchik also said he supports the concept, but said the timing of such wage increases should be “thoughtfully weighed.”

Topher Morrison said he supports the Fight for $15 movement that seeks to raise all minimum wages.

All of the candidates declined to comment on wages at the Straz Center for the Arts.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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