Butte-Silver Bow commissioners approved a contract Wednesday night that will give police officers a 2-percent pay raise this year and much larger increases for most next year under a new matrix salary system.
After an hour of sometimes contentious debate, the council voted 8-4 in favor of the contract, which will take effect immediately.
Voting for the plan were Commissioners Michele Shea, Bud Walker, Bill Andersen, Dan Callahan, John Morgan, Brendan McDonough, Dan Olsen and Shawn Fredrickson. Voting nay were Jim Fisher, Cindi Shaw, John Sorich and Dan Foley.
“I support these police officers and investing in them is investing in the future of Butte,” Fredrickson said.
The salary scale is designed to bring police pay in Butte in line with Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula, something officers here say they deserve.
Many of them attended Wednesday night’s council meeting and three spoke before council and urged commissioners to approve the contract.
Officer Russ Robertson said Butte’s police officers deal with stress, societal problems and tragedy every day, many have been shot at, and they field more calls and make more arrests than police in the other six cities.
“We just want to be compensated fairly for the job we want to do that nobody else wants to do,” he said, adding later that, “We work harder than most departments in this state by a long shot.”
But the matrix for police will cost taxpayers an additional $428,000 on top of the 2-percent raise, and when costs for the two are combined over a two-year period, the tab is $1.2 million in new expense, according to budget officials.
That has worried some commissioners who say the cost is so high, they will have to make serious budget cuts or raise taxes next year to pay for it in 2019 and subsequent years.
Commissioners approved higher road fees this year, residents are paying more for the new waterpark and a majority of voters last month added $34 million in property taxes to fund a bond issue for Butte Public Schools.
Some commissioners had also questioned the matrix because it compares Butte to six other cities — all with higher costs of living and some much higher — without that being included in the calculations.
Fisher, who has questioned the matrix and cost, said police do a great job and deserve a raise. But he said he must weigh numerous county issues each week and this is the first time the room was full of police officers.
“You are here tonight because you have an issue that concerns you,” he said, adding moments later, “My employer is the taxpayer and my employer has told me this is not the right thing to do.”
Foley recounted problems the county had before with pay scales similar to the matrix and said the council had to look at future costs and all taxpayers.
Shea, elected in November, supported the contract. She said the union had negotiated it in good faith, it was supported by Chief Executive Dave Palmer, and Butte residents have consistently ranked roads and public safety as top priorities.
She also said county officials would have to make offsetting cuts in the next budget to ensure that taxes wouldn’t have to be raised too much to pay for the matrix wages.
McDonough also supported the contract, but said commissioners would have to “own it” and find a way to pay for it in the coming months. That was a “game plan” that had not been thought out beforehand, he said.
Butte’s patrol officers averaged about $64,800 in gross pay last year and it would jump to more than $71,000 under the matrix. Thirteen others who are detectives, sergeants or lieutenants made an average of about $79,400, and if wage factors such as longevity and overtime hours stayed the same, they would make about $94,400 on average under the matrix.
The Butte Police Protective Association, the union that represents Butte’s police officers, detention officers and dispatchers, has been negotiating the new contact for months with Palmer and the Human Resources Department.