Missoula County commissioners expressed concern Thursday after learning that wages for entry-level sheriff's deputies are quickly falling behind wages offered to new police officers at the city.

The county recently completed negotiations with the Missoula County Deputy Sheriff's Association. However, deputy sheriff wages are fixed by state law, giving the county little room to compete with the city.

Chris Lounsbury, the county's chief operating officer, said the county will have to seek “creative ways” to address the disparity.

“Their salaries are actually fixed by state law, so there's not a lot we can do to their salary,” Lounsbury said. “Just as a comparison, the (city) police department just negotiated a three-year agreement. By the end of that agreement, their entry level position will be $4 an hour ahead of our entry level position.”

While solutions are sought, commissioners agreed to several interim adjustments, including an increase to the percent paid to deputy coroners. The change will boost the amount from 5% to 7%.

The resulting impact to the county budget wasn't immediately available, and it won't start until next fiscal year.

“Right now, they get paid a percentage beyond the base salary of a deputy sheriff if they sign up to be a coroner,” Lounsbury said. “As you can imagine, being a coroner is not that attractive for deputies, and they do have a hard time recruiting folks to that position and getting folks to stay in that position.”

Commissioners also agreed to boost the compensation paid to field training officers by .50 cents while in training. Still, Lounsbury said, the county must look for other ways to address the wage disparity.

Commissioners agreed, saying a wage gap of $4 an hour could put a pinch on recruiting and retaining quality county law enforcement officers.

“We're not gaining ground” said Commissioner Juanita Vero. “We'll have to address that.”