LETHBRIDGE: City council voted Monday to give regional police a significant raise, rather than face a potentially costly forced arbitration ruling. By 2012, the yearly wage for "first class constables" will be just above $87,000 a year, up about 15 per cent or $10,000 from 2009. Aldermen voted five to two (Ald. Jeff Coffman and Ald. Ryan Parker were absent) to make the change and settle a new collective agreement, which the Police Association had been without since January 2010.
"We just needed to settle it," said Ald. Liz Iwaskiw shortly after the vote. "I don't think anybody on council is thrilled to be giving this enormous increase, but we have to. I know the number one thing taxpayers are willing to pay for is police and fire. And if we found some magical way not to do this I don't think we would attract more police officers."
The raise will place Lethbridge police among the highest paid in southern Alberta in 2012 - about $500 more per year than Medicine Hat and about $4,000 more per year than Calgary and Edmonton. The comparisons weren't lost on Ald. Joe Mauro and Ald. Faron Ellis, who both voted against the increase.
"We can't keep doing this catch up year after year after year. When other communities see what we're doing, they're going to raise it and start a snowball effect," said Mauro during the debate. "At the end of the day the taxpayers have to pay for it, and at the end of the day I don't care what's it for. If they can't afford it, I'm not OK with it."
The money needed for the 2010 and 2011 police raises has already been set aside, while the 2012 amount will be part of city council's next budget. Iwaskiw called the raise a "one-time event," saying council wants to hold increases steady to a more typical two per cent raise per year after 2012. She said she's talked to representatives in other cities who resisted raising salaries to match nearby competitors, and let the issue go to arbitration. Some of those cities ended up paying $150,000 to $200,000 for the process. It's for that reason - avoiding potentially expensive arbitration - that Mayor Raijko Dodic said he was in favour of the move.
"This is not something that we could say you would save money if you voted against it," said Dodic. "When I'm voting for this resolution I'm voting because I firmly believe that from an economic point of view, this will cost the citizens of Lethbridge less than to force arbitration." The new collective agreement ends December 31, 2012.