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Butte’s patrol police officers averaged about $64,800 in gross pay last year and it would jump to more than $71,000 under a proposed matrix system and contract that commissioners are being asked to approve Wednesday night.

Thirteen others who are detectives, sergeants or lieutenants took home 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 proposed system.

Police and a few county officials have been negotiating the matrix for months, but its fate heading into Wednesday night’s council meeting was unclear.

Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive, wants commissioners to OK the plan and find the money to pay for it in the coming months. But some commissioners say its costs will mean big budget cuts elsewhere or tax increases, and one wants negotiations to start over from scratch.

The salary scale is designed to bring police pay in Butte in line with Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula.

The Butte Police Protective Association, the union that represents Butte’s police officers, detention officers and dispatchers, says police pay here is lower than all those cities, in most cases far lower.

It says a first-year officer in Butte makes 78 cents less per hour than a first-year officer in Helena, the next lowest city. The disparity gets bigger over the years, and in the 20th year, an officer here is making $7.40 less per hour than his counterpart in Helena.

Under the matrix, pay would be brought to the median of the other six cities and most officers here would get big increases.

Under the contract Palmer wants commissioners to OK, police, dispatchers and detention officers would get a 2-percent pay raise this fiscal year, as other county employees got.

Starting July 1, BPPA members would get a 2-percent raise or matrix-level pay, whichever is higher. Most police officers would fall under the new matrix and get much larger increases.

Average gross pay for Butte’s 31 confirmed patrol officers, which includes overtime, longevity, clothing allowances and other factors, would go from $64,796 to $71,022 under the matrix if all other wage factors for each officer were the same, according to county budget figures.

Average gross pay for the 13 detectives, sergeants or lieutenants would jump from $79,376 to $94,361. The figures do not include county-paid benefits, which average about $22,460.

The matrix for police will cost the county $428,000 more than a straight 2-percent pay raise. When the 2-percent hike this year is combined with the matrix next year, the added cost is $1.2 million, according to budget officials.

The matrix does not factor in cost of living, which is higher and in most cases significantly higher in the other six cities. The biggest cost-of-living factor is housing and rental cost, but it also includes food and groceries, taxes and transportation expenses, among other things.

According to Sperling’s Cost of Living Index, which calculates those expenses for most cities in the U.S., the median price of a house in Butte is $131,700 and its overall cost of living is rated at 86.2 compared to a national average of 100.

The median price of a house in Great Falls is $186,600 and its cost-of-living rating is 96.5, meaning it costs about 10 percent more to live there than in Butte.

The other cities were even higher, with Bozeman at the top. Its median house price is $400,200 and its overall rating is 129.9, making it far more expensive to live in than Butte. Put another way, a $60,000 salary in Butte goes a lot farther than the same salary in Bozeman.

The BPPA union says to its knowledge, cost-of-living comparisons with other cities have never been made during negotiations with county employee bargaining units here. Even so, they aren’t asking to be the highest paid.

“We understand there are differences in tax bases and community growth in the state, which is why we are simply being asked to be placed in the middle, at the median, in regard to wages,” Officer Pat Fleming told commissioners recently.

Officer Ryan Hardy, president of the BPPA, said there are other factors to consider, too.

Police in the other cities only patrol their city limits, he said. Sheriffs and their deputies cover the outlying county areas, and some of those counties have other cities or communities with their own police departments. Butte’s officers are responsible for Butte and the rest of the county.

“If there is a bar fight in Melrose, we are sending two of our officers all the way down to Melrose,” Hardy said Tuesday.

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Officers also say their jobs are just as dangerous here as anywhere.

“Every day these people put on a bullet-proof vest and work the streets with a loaded gun to protect everyone in this room,” Hardy told commissioners at a recent meeting. “They do it without a thank you, without question, day in and day out.”

Hardy said officers here pay taxes too, so they hope county officials can find the money to pay for the raises without raising taxes. But in the same breath, he said, they want what they consider to be fair wages.

But the costs weigh on some officials.

Danette Gleason, Butte-Silver Bow’s budget director, agrees with commissioners and others who say that police here have a dangerous profession and do a great job. But she has to take all county services and expenses into account in balancing the books every year.

She wonders what kind of pay policy for other county employees is being set under the matrix and says its added costs will become the new base for future increases and must be spread out among Butte’s entire tax base.

And, she says, comparisons with other Montana cities should include cost-of-living differences. Butte resident Jim Williams, in a recent letter to The Montana Standard, said the same.

“I want the police to be paid fairly, but they should not get paid Bozeman wages to live in Butte,” he wrote.

Commissioner Jim Fisher said if there is a matrix, it should be based on cities with comparable populations, growth and cost of living, not Billings, Bozeman and Missoula.

He has asked Palmer and the Human Resources Department to explain how the matrix increases will be paid for in the next budget and said Tuesday he has gotten no response. Given that and other reasons, he wants the negotiations to start over.

“There are only two ways to do it — they are going to have to cut services or raise taxes, they just don’t want to say that,” he said.

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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