PROVO — Provo City Council — not Santa Claus — granted Provo police officer Austin Williams his Christmas wish this year. During a three-hour emergency meeting Wednesday, the council voted to take over the officer's retirement benefits, which will save the young officer and each of his colleagues around $400 a month (9 percent of their wage).

When Williams stepped out of cadet school and strapped his 9mm on for the first time to serve the public four months ago, he had no idea that Provo was one of just a handful of cities in Utah, and the only one in Utah County, that

requires its police force to pay after-tax dollars back to the city for their retirement.

Hundreds of policemen, firemen and other city workers wiped Christmas from their eyes and showed up early Wednesday morning for an emotional debate in a jam-packed city council chambers about amending a 24-year-old parity law.

The ordinance was enacted to keep fire, police and other public employee groups from pushing for different compensations and benefits, relieving the council of lobbying pressure to favor one group over the other.

Every other city employee's retirement is covered, said council chairman George Stewart. "It's time we address the police concern."

City employees who are not firefighters or policeman retire after 30 years. Since firemen and police officers retire after 20, their monthly saving rate is higher, but firemen do not have to pay an out-of-pocket cost because the difference is covered by a state tax on homeowner insurance.

When the council was first given a chance to vote for a change in what was supposed to be their last meeting of the year Dec. 18, 40 well-prepared policemen crowded the chambers with a compelling presentation that had as its focal point recruitment.

Paying the officers' retirement will make the department more attractive to new recruits. The department has struggled in its attempt to hire eight more officers for a long time.

"It's the No. 1 issue in our department," said police chief Craig Geslison. "It's not the only (recruiting) issue — I wouldn't hang my hat on it — but it's the biggest."

Provo Mayor Lewis Billings, however, disagreed, calling the Provo police department already competitive. He said Provo's basic senior officer makes more than Orem and about 20 percent more than a Utah County officer.

"I want to caution the council from walking through that door," he said. "I would personally like an approach that will allow me more time."

He recommended that their retirement be paid for only on an "interim basis" in the next year while they study "a better solution."

The council unanimously decided to pay for the officers' retirement in the earlier meeting, but the emergency meeting had to be scheduled because of timing. The Legislature only allows cities to join the state's noncontributory system when a bill is sponsored about every four years. The council opted to decide before the end of that window and most of them said that no better option had been presented.

Council members Steve Turley and Midge Johnson reversed their original vote in support after hearing emotional testimony from disgruntled firemen and city workers who think they are being treated unfairly.

"Very few choices do we get that are good versus evil or black versus white," said Turley moments before he raised his hand in opposition. "This is so complex."

Since the decision to spend more comes when the budget is already set, the city plans to pay for it with the money it would have spent on about eight extra officers who have not yet been hired. It will cost about $500,000 more annually.

Some city employees in the crowd left the meeting shaking their heads in disappointment.

"I don't know why firemen are so upset about this," said Jim Guynn, Provo fire marshal. "It's a scoop of soup for everybody. If it doesn't hurt us — and it doesn't, from what I've heard — so it's fine that the police get it."

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