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Most Butte-Silver Bow police officers would get big pay raises under a proposed “matrix” system to bring wages in line with cops in other Montana cities, but it could rile other county employees and take a major hit on the county’s budget.

Collectively, the county’s 46 non-management police officers would make at least $372,000 more in wages and benefits under the proposed matrix than they would if they were to get just a 2-percent pay increase like other county employees this year.

The county’s 39 dispatchers and detention officers are closer to their counterparts in other cities. They would get more pay with just a 2-percent pay hike. 

The union representing all three groups wants everyone to get matrix pay or the 2-percent increase, whichever is higher. 

That would cost taxpayers footing the bill an additional $475,000 this fiscal year compared to last, and it’s not just a one-time expense. It would establish a new base for salaries and benefits, so any future increases would be on top of that.

The county and the Butte Police Protective Association agreed last year to work toward a wage-and-classification system that provides those in the bargaining unit with wages paid to similar employees in similarly sized cities in Montana.

The cities used to calculate the matrix were Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Kalispell and Missoula. Getting to the median wages of those cities would require many officers here getting wage raises of between $2 and $6 per hour.

Officer Ryan Hardy, president of the BPPA union, said the numbers from other cities were pulled from actual contracts and that extensive research went into establishing the median figures. Both sides agreed to their accuracy, he said.

“Once we started seeing the numbers, it was glaring that we were definitely at the back of the pack,” Hardy said Tuesday.

Pay is at the forefront when city police departments are trying to recruit and retain quality officers, he said. Those with lifelong ambitions of being an officer can choose Butte or get better pay within an hour of here in Bozeman or Helena, he said.

For the first time in recent years, commissioners have been asked to weigh in on a proposed contract before everything is finalized, and it has put them in a corner and perhaps a no-win situation.

They could anger police if they don’t go along, and if they do approve it, all of the county’s employees not tied to matrix pay with other cities might demand the same system. Clerks are tied to a matrix, county officials say, but most others are not.

“It comes down to this: How do we tell them (police) 'yes' and everyone else 'no'?’” Commissioner Jim Fisher said during a long committee meeting last week that nine commissioners — including four not on that panel — sat through.

Affordability and potential tax increases are major concerns, too.

If all other county finances remained constant, commissioners would have to increase property taxes by more than seven mills just to pay the $475,000 in added costs for wages and benefits for one year under the proposed pact.

Or, they could make budget cuts in several areas, including — potentially — payroll for law enforcement. Some commissioners are worried about giving many officers hefty pay raises at the expense of shrinking the force.

At the very least, Commissioner John Sorich said, “It’s going to be hard to increase staffing with this.”

Commissioner Bill Andersen said when it comes to police, “I want to do right by them, I want to do right by their families.” But on the flip side, he’s worried about taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes.

He’s concerned about tax increases in general, too. People are paying more for the waterpark and more in road maintenance fees now. In addition, most county residents will face property tax increases if voters approve a $35 million school bond issue on Nov. 6.

Andersen also questioned the rationale of continuously comparing Butte to other cities in Montana, when the latter have much higher home values and wealthier tax bases.

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Dave Palmer, the county’s chief executive, said he agreed after taking office in early 2017 that he would try to determine median wages for police in other cities and try to get officers here close to those marks.

Bargaining teams for the union and the county agreed to take the current proposal to their members for feedback, Palmer said. On the county side, he said, that meant commissioners. But it is not a done deal yet, he said.

Sheriff Ed Lester said he was involved in the recent negotiations with regard to departmental issues, but when it came to wages, the BPPA union worked with Palmer and the county personnel department.

Still, he fielded general questions from commissioners on the issue last week and said recent efforts had been made to bring Butte's detention officers  closer to the median of other cities.

Officers agreed to that, he said, under a stipulation that they be moved closer to the median, too. He said if the issue went to arbitration, he thinks the police union would stand a good chance of winning.

He was then asked if he was OK with reducing the force or his budget.

“The day I come here and tell you we have too many cops and too many vehicles and too many guns is the day you will say, ‘I think he has lost his mind,’” he said, drawing chuckles from commissioners.

Hardy said talks have been extensive and collaborative to this point and commissioners were brought into the discussions slightly earlier than usual as a “heads up” to what’s on the table.

There has been talk of phasing in the matrix pay system over three years.

The council’s Finance and Budget Committee could recommend yea or nay when it meets Wednesday night, with the full council taking it up as early as Nov. 7.

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Government and politics reporter

Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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