Portland City Council this morning unanimously approved its first-ever union contract with the city's park rangers—genially ending an occasionally bitter labor feud that sprung up some 18 months ago and, perhaps more consequentially, adding heat to the city's still simmering debate over a $15 minimum wage.

Under the deal, full-time rangers will see their starting pay jump from $17.47 an hour to $18.99, on the way to a max of $25.16. Seasonal rangers, meanwhile, come out even better. They'll start receiving city health benefits starting next year. When they reach their maximum number of annual hours, they'll actually have some official priority when it comes time to fill out next year's ranger roster. And they'll see their starting pay jump from $12 an hour to $15.83—putting them just ahead of the $15 discussion.

"We need to make sure the public understands there's nothing overly generous about this contract," Mayor Charlie Hales said. "It's fair and reasonable."

A handful of commissioners, in fact, tied this morning's contract vote to an explicit promise to continue Portland's larger conversation around the minimum wage. That could start as soon as next month, when the city council takes up its legislative wish list ahead of next year's regular session in Salem. (Multnomah County's also just signed a $15 contract, along with Home Forward.)

"These are issues I hope we make a part of our legislative agenda," said Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who embraced working toward a minimum wage increase (if not precisely up to $15) after his top re-election rival this spring, professor and activist Nick Caleb, made it his top campaign issue.

Saltzman said he wants to lobby Salem to either hike the state's minimum wage, which is indexed to inflation but set right now at just $9.20 $9.10 (but headed to $9.25 next year), or lift the state's pre-emption on letting local governments set their own. (There's a better chance of that happening now that Democrats have an 18-12 majority in the Senate. The Business Journal has reported State Representative Rob Nosse's interest in floating a $15 bill.) He also suggested finding money next year to raise wages for more of the city's own workers and contractors.

"I hope we will look at the upcoming budget process for ways to help employees earning less than $15 an hour," Saltzman said.

The deal will cost the city $900,000 over the next three years—a cost that commissioners strongly defended as worth it for the work the rangers perform in sometimes difficult straits. They work with campers and people in crisis—helping them as a kinder, gentler option before the cops show up—and also smile and help tourists and others find their way.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who said it was "unconscionable" that part-time workers employed by the city for years might retire without benefits, called the added spending "the right thing to do" even if it's also "expensive." Fritz, as parks commissioner, has been among the loudest advocates for recognizing the rangers and increasing their pay. During last year's budget talks, she secured funding to make several temporary positions in the parks bureau permanent.

"As we have those ongoing discussions about 15 dollars an hour," she said, "my preference is to create good union jobs or other positions that provide proper benefits."

It's worth repeating that the exuberance on display this morning—including some gracious remarks by outspoken ranger Sam Sachs welcoming the city as a partner—is still a somewhat recent deveopment.

The rangers' contract, ratified in late October, came together only after a long bureaucratic fight. Rangers first tried unionizing in March 2013, joining up with Laborers Local 483. But Hales' office refused to bargain with the rangers and Local 483, as the Northwest Labor Press has reported, until officials were ordered to do so by the state Employment Relations Board this spring.

"We got to the right result," Hales said before casting his vote, somewhat understating the tense road that led to the dropping of his gavel. "Well done."