Unable to persuade city negotiators to up their pay in a major way, St. Paul's police officers are aiming to ask taxpayers directly to guarantee them a competitive wage.

Today, the St. Paul Police Federation is expected to launch a petition drive that seeks to put to a public vote an amendment to the city charter that would guarantee that St. Paul officers rank in the top five in pay among their peers in 27 metro area police departments.

The move comes as city and union negotiators prepare to go to arbitration over a new contract for 2008, 2009 and 2010.

The new wrinkle in what has become an increasingly public dispute is the union's attempt -- both through the charter amendment and its final contract offer heading into arbitration -- to establish the ranking system as the means to determine officer pay, as opposed to a figure negotiated by the two sides or set by an arbitrator.

According to union calculations, a St. Paul officer would rank 15th in career pay among peers in the 27 departments if a 3.25 percent increase proposed for 2008 went into effect. Noting that officers work in the state's second-largest city, with the second-largest police force and second-highest crime rate, union leaders believe a higher ranking is in order in the future.

"Since we've made no headway with elected officials, we thought we'd talk to the people who elect the elected officials," Michael Shannon, a union consultant, said Wednesday of the upcoming petition drive. The charter amendment, he added, would take politics out of police pay.

Angela Nalezny, the city's human resources director, and Jason Schmidt, the city's labor relations manager, said Wednesday that the city seeks to negotiate similar salary increases for all bargaining units, and that each of the city's other 12 non-trade unions accepted the 3.25 percent increases for 2008, 2009 and 2010 that now are before the arbitrator.

Of the attempt to lock in a ranking system, Nalezny said: "You should negotiate every year how much [a contract] is going to cost taxpayers."

Taking to the streets

At a news conference today, the federation plans to unveil a radio ad supporting the amendment, and to put voters on notice that the union will be seeking signatures when people go to the polls for Tuesday's general election.

The charter amendment does not specify a date for when the top five ranking requirement would go into effect.

The proposal before the arbitrator calls for a St. Paul officer's pay to rank no worse than a Minneapolis officer's pay, or the top nine of the 27-department comparison group -- effective July 1, 2010.

For the final year of a multiyear agreement ending in 2008, the city of Minneapolis agreed to a pay system for its police department that guaranteed to move its patrol officers into the top third of that city's comparison group, union head John Delmonico wrote in the union's newsletter this past summer. That translated into a 4.5 percent "market adjustment" for officers this year, he added.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-298-1545