Local police officers may be in line to receive some significant raises, if the Duluth City Council signs off on a proposed contract Monday, and Chief Mike Tusken hopes higher wages will bolster his department's recruitment and retention efforts.

In recent months, the Duluth Police Department has struggled to fill openings. Tusken said the force is beginning the year five people shy of its authorized 155-officer strength. But Tusken said the force had been unable to attract an adequate number of suitable new recruits for the first time in more than 15 years.

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"When I started, there was so much competition, you were just glad to get a job. But now, it's really the reverse," Tusken said.

"Today, there are almost as many opportunities as there are candidates, and so our candidates are very astute when it comes to wages and benefits. And they're applying and pursuing careers accordingly. We really have to be at market level for people to come in the door and to see that we have competitive wages and benefits, so we can continue to recruit the best and the brightest here to the Duluth Police Department." he said.

The proposed police union contract would boost the starting annual pay for a rookie officer by $3,500, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, with a first-year member of the force pulling down $55,092.

The tentative agreement also calls for police officers to receive across-the-board annual wage increases of 3 percent for 2018, 2019 and 2020. Additionally, the would-be contract provides for a 1 percent market wage adjustment in 2018, making for a total retroactive pay increase of 4 percent for that year.

"As far as moving the needle, I think what we got out of this contract is an acknowledgement from the city ... that there is an issue with pay, compared to other agencies," said Sgt. Ryan Morris, president of the Duluth Police Union Local 807.

Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, agreed, saying: "The 3 percent is the negotiated salary increases, and the 1 percent market adjustment is definitely in recognition of our need to better align our pay."

In addition to improved officer pay, the city intends to sweeten a health benefit police receive. At present, people the department hired in 2007 or later, when the city discontinued an employer-paid retiree health insurance benefit, instead receive the equivalent of 2 percent of their salary paid into a health savings account. The proposed contract would increase that donation to 3 percent going forward.

Morris said getting new officers in the door is only part of the equation. "Recruitment and retention really are our priorities."

"A concern we continue to have is that retention piece, because we're having officers that are leaving this department kind of at an unprecedented rate," Morris said.

"A number of different factors play into that, but certainly pay is a major issue when you can go to other agencies and make a significant amount more money with a smaller workload, as well," he said.

"We're certainly trying to narrow some of those gaps that we have with other departments across the state, absolutely," said Tusken, who agreed that retaining talent on the force is a challenge that must be met.

"We pour a lot of resources into our people through training. It's expensive, and once you've made that substantial investment in those first three to five years, you certainly want to retain those people, hopefully for a full career," Tusken said.

But Tusken noted that Duluth faces a competitive market, with skilled law enforcement officers in high demand.

"When they really start to peak in their performance, you don't want people walking out the door and going to other departments," he said.

While Morris contends more needs to be done to make the Duluth Police Department's wages competitive, he praised the proposed contract, saying: "It gets the ball rolling,"

Morris acknowledged there's only so much the city can do in a three-year time span to make up for previous years when police wages were frozen or barely increased.

Tusken said that if he can get the department staffed up to full strength, it will help.

"We are certainly one of the busiest police departments in the state, and it is important for us to be at our staffing levels, so we can deliver the services that the community expects from us, but also that component of being able to have enough resources where your staff doesn't feel overwhelmed with the demands on their time," Tusken said.