Tucson’s City Council took the first steps in what could turn out to be protracted and contentious labor negotiations with the unions that represent city employees.

This year, Tucson will engage in contract talks with all four unions over what the city will pay in salary and benefits, one of the largest expenses in the city’s budget.

It will mark the first time since 2011 that the city will engage in formal contract talks.

The council voted 5-1 Tuesday to kick off the process. As part of the negotiations, the city will hire a consultant to work on the police and fire contracts, conduct a study showing budget impacts, and will make any necessary code changes if problems arise.

Assistant City Manager Martha Durkin said the complex police and fire contracts, which contain various pay structures and other stipulations, require some outside help to negotiate. She said the city would keep the consultant’s contract under $50,000.

Tucson’s code requires the city manager to hammer out a deal with the unions and then present it to the council for a final vote. Council members are prohibited from discussing labor contracts with union leaders while negotiations are under way.

Councilwoman Shirley Scott opposed the motion because the unions were excluded when city staff was drawing up its recommendations. “I just wanted it to be run by the unions first” for input, Scott said.

A Tucson Police Officer Association spokesman said his group doesn’t have any problem working with a consultant, but he hopes the person is familiar with the history of Tucson labor negotiations. “We would like the consultant to take into account the historical background on what employees have gone through the past 10 years and the tens of millions of dollars employees have given back,” said TPOA government affairs director Jason Winsky.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.