It's not unheard-of for cities and towns to pay their police officers a little extra for using their computers. Both Newton and Natick do it. But Town Meeting members in Framingham turned down a request for such a stipend, with some angrily denouncing, even ridiculing, the job perk.
At the June 24 session of Town Meeting, member Steve Orr asked whether Framingham should provide crayons to replace the computers.
"I think we should send a message here," another member, Jim Rizoli, said at the meeting. "This is absolutely insane. . . . I think we should say no."
The 1.2 percent annual stipend would have added about $476 to the $39,705 starting salary for a Framingham patrol officer. Adding the benefit would have cost the town a total of $41,000 for the first year.
Town Meeting's rejection of the proposed stipend sends the issue back to the bargaining table. Formally, the vote denied a request from town leaders to settle a complaint of unfair labor practice and a grievance filed by the Framingham Police Officers Union last year.
The complaint to the state's Labor Relations Commission alleged that the town imposed an "unlawful unilateral change of a preexisting practice" when it required officers to begin filing their reports via computer. To settle the matter, Town Counsel Christopher Petrini recommended the technology stipend.
The union contends that it should have been able to negotiate on computer use before it was mandated.
Although he had urged the 1.2 percent stipend as being in Framingham's best interests, Petrini said the town's position is that officers are not legally entitled to additional compensation for the change.
"It's a part of the functions of the job," Petrini said after Town Meeting. "Our position is that they're simply using computers as a new tool to accomplish what they're required to do under the basic functions of the job."
At Town Meeting, Petrini asserted that the union has some justification for the requested stipend partly because of past practice: The town has for years paid a 2.3 percent stipend for the use of other technology, including defibrillators, fingerprinting, and photography equipment.
Alan McDonald, the union's lawyer, said the police officers want some say in the matter.
"It's an effort to protect our bargaining rights over what's known under the law as 'unilateral change,' " he said. "The law says employers are supposed to bargain with unions before they make unilateral changes in terms and conditions of employment."
Generally, the union supports technological improvements, McDonald said, but some officers prefer to file reports by hand.
Other concerns include the possibility of an increased workload as a result of the new mandate, and the availability of computer terminals, he said.
Because the stipend was rejected by Town Meeting, the union's cases will continue. The grievance will go back before the American Arbitration Association and the unfair labor practice charge will go back before the state Division of Labor Relations, an agency formed in November by a merger between the Labor Relations Commission and the Board on Conciliation and Arbitration.
Ed Levay, a Town Meeting member who voted in favor of the stipend, said he did so because he thought the price of settlement could escalate.
"This was probably the smallest amount they had to pay to get out of it," he said after Town Meeting. "The thing is, this now has to go back and it could go back for a higher amount of money. It has to be settled somehow."
Natick and Newton are two examples of communities that pay computer stipends to their police officers.
Natick officers receive an annual stipend, equal to 2 percent of their base pay, for operating the CompStat Policing Program, which is used to generate crime statistics. In their contract, the stipend is described as being in recognition of the work associated with running the program as well as the "advanced technological skills" of Natick's officers.
According to Lieutenant Brian Grassey, Natick Police Department spokesman, the stipend was negotiated a number of years ago. The current contract indicates it was retroactive to July 1, 2000.
Detective Ed Arena, president of the Natick Police Patrol Officers Association, who was not involved in negotiations when the stipend was instituted, said the extra money is compensation for the way the job has evolved.
"Police officers' responsibilities of the past have been pen and paper and writing tickets and writing reports, but over the last 20 to 25 years, with the computer age and technology, we've had to take on more responsibilities and have a more complex skill set," Arena said.
Since July 1, 2003, Newton patrol officers have received a flat annual computer-use stipend of $1,215.
Contractual language states that the stipend is "designed to compensate officers for conversion to a computerized reporting system and other related technological innovations."
The contract also stipulates that computer training must be provided to each officer via a two-hour session on an overtime basis.
Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.