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Credit: Larry Johnson, "Denver Skyline at Sunset," December 17, 2009

New West Daily Roundup for Nov. 14, 2016

Today in New West news: Colorado reckons with minimum wage hike, contamination in aquifer stokes concerns in White Mesa, Utah; and an update on One Big Sky Center in Billings.

Last week, several states—Arizona, Washington, Maine, and Colorado—approved minimum wage hikes. Colorado voted in a $12-per-hour minimum wage. Earlier this year, one Colorado business coalition voiced concern over how a hike would affect their bottom line; meanwhile, a pair of studies from the University of Denver & Colorado Women’s College and the Colorado Fiscal Institute concluded that raising the minimum wage would add $400 million to the state’s GDP. Against that backdrop of differing conclusions, businesses in the Centennial State have started calculating their next moves, according to the Denver Post:

While businesses who backed the higher wage say they think it could be good for their employees and their business, many are doing a calculation that involves finding the right balance between passing on higher costs to customers, adjusting staffing and work hours, and looking for other cost savings.

“I don’t think anybody will do it just on higher menu prices and you won’t do it all on the back of your employees,” said Steve Kanatzar, managing partner of The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, who opposed Amendment 70 as chairman of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

The CRA asked its members in 2015 about their response to a minimum-wage hike similar to the one that just passed. Of the 220 restaurants that responded, nearly nine in 10 expected to pass on price increases, while seven in 10 anticipated cutting employee hours or the headcount. Six in 10 expected to limit future growth, while one in five planned to close locations.


Minimum-wage hikes were tracking local inflation at around 2 percent a year, but will jump 12 percent next year and 44 percent by 2020. The state’s tipped minimum wage will rise a sharper 70 percent to $8.98 from $5.29.

In an ideal world, businesses would just incorporate higher labor costs into the prices they charge customers, with no defections or loss in sales. But opponents of the measure said they can only pass on a certain amount without driving away business.

Currently, Colorado’s minimum wage is $8.31 and is slated to rise to $9.30 in January. Thereafter, it will rise by 90 cents every year until 2020.

Over in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, residents around the White Mesa uranium mill are voicing concerns over possible contamination in an aquifer located just underneath the mill. Concern has reached the point where some want to relocate the town. One issue with both the move and the state of the aquifer, however, is that no one really knows where the pollution is coming from and leadership (across state, federal, and tribal levels) is reportedly unconcerned, to the chagrin of residents:

“You’re giving us all this information, but what’s really going to happen?” asked resident David Yearicks during an October town hall to address the contamination. “If the answer is the community fighting for change … that sounds like a Band-Aid over a gushing wound.”

Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said the aquifer that underlies both the town and the White Mesa uranium mill is known to be contaminated with chloroform, nitrate, chloride, fluoride and multiple heavy metals, including uranium. Over the past seven years, he said, samples from the monitoring wells surrounding the mill indicate that heavy metals concentrations are increasing and that the water is becoming increasingly acidic.

The Utah Department of Health has recently recruited volunteers from White Mesa to participate in a study of residents’ exposure to heavy metals, which are believed to be a problem in communities throughout the Four Corners region due to the area’s historic mining activities. Megan Broekemeier, a health department educator who helped recruit in White Mesa, said 25 people — about 10 percent of the town’s population — agreed to participate.

But the state has declined to investigate the water itself, Clow said, even though “it seems pretty obvious to us that [contaminants are] coming from the tailings cells.”

The mill, designed to process uranium ore, extracts uranium from other uranium-bearing materials when supplies of natural ore run low. It accepts waste from the Department of Defense as well as from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The mill’s Radioactive Materials License permit has been under review since 2007, Clow said, and in the meantime, the EPA has left oversight to Utah while sending waste from Superfund and other clean-up sites around the country to White Mesa.

Finally, up in Montana, we’ve been following updates in the city of Billings over the proposed One Big Sky Center, a $165 million multi-use development that would radically alter the city’s downtown. According to the Billings Gazette, the city council will meet and vote on a “pre-dvelopment memorandum of understanding” between the city and One Big Sky’s developer, MontDevCo LLC:

Monday’s meeting begins with a closed session at 5:30 p.m., during which the city council will discuss litigation strategy. The open session will begin at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at City Hall, 220 N. 27th St.

According to a memo from Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless, Monday’s vote will be the council’s first official opportunity to endorse the project.

While the agreement contains “no concrete commitments or responsibilities,” it does “authorize staff to work with the developers to produce an acceptable development agreement by June 30, 2017,” McCandless wrote.

That date could be extended. In a Nov. 7 email to City Administrator Tina Volek, the developers request that the predevelopment MOU — the precursor to the development agreement, which will be much more specific about what’s required of both the city and the developers — be extended beyond June 30, 2017, to one year beyond the council’s adoption of the predevelopment agreement.

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