Police fearful of state cut
Impact on towns would be varied
A legislative proposal to cut a popular police benefit has caused confusion and consternation in local police departments, as some officers worry that their annual pay could be cut by thousands of dollars.
The House Ways and Means Committee released a proposed state budget earlier this month that chopped $50 million from the so-called Quinn bill, which hikes the pay of officers who earn degrees in higher education in criminal justice fields.
Although the proposal was still being debated this week, some municipal officials are also concerned: If the state doesn't fund the benefit, their city or town may be on the hook for covering the state's portion of the expense, dig ging their financial holes deeper.
The proposed measure, which the Ways and Means Committee envisioned as a way to cut expenses because of plummeting state revenue, caused an immediate outcry among police unions.
Although union members have said since that more than half of the 160-member House has pledged to reject the proposal as budget deliberations move along, the legislative deliberations have caused a stir among local officers.
The House was expected to revisit its version of the budget this week; an exact timetable was not known Tuesday. The Quinn bill had survived several attempts to change it substantially. Until now, the most recent attempt was in 2003 when a proposal to provide officers with lump sums rather than a percent increase of their base pay was defeated.
In most communities, the state and municipality split the bill for Quinn money due officers, and the municipality is contractually obligated to double its share if the state does not put up its portion. But some communities are only responsible for their half - if the state does not fund it, then officers could receive only half of raises they expected.
"We're talking a good chunk of someone's salary going out the window," said William D. Marble Jr., acting chief in Holbrook.
Holbrook, like Braintree and Duxbury, is not obligated to pick up the state's share, said chiefs from those towns.
Quincy is also not bound, but Mayor Thomas P. Koch said the city would pick up the state's share because of past precedents. Should the state cut its contribution, the impact would hit Quincy harder than any other community in this area: The city this year received almost $1.4 million from the state in such funding.
The Quinn bill raises are based on a formula. An officer who earns an associate's degree gets base pay increased by 10 percent; after a bachelor's, by 20 percent; and after a master's, by 25 percent. Thus, an officer with a base pay of $40,000, for example, would receive an extra $4,000 for an associate's degree, and $8,800 on top of that for a bachelor's. The state's portion would be approximately $6,400 - which is what an officer could lose in some communities.
"It would be a hit to the salaries of our officers, for sure," said Braintree Police Chief Paul H. Frazier. The state this fiscal year gave the town nearly $300,000 for Quinn bill raises; next year, it was expected to contribute about $350,000.
The Quinn bill provisions have been criticized by some for the quality of education the officers receive and the size of their pay increases. But officers said questionable schools and programs have been weeded out and the money acts almost as step raises for beginning salaries that are barely a living wage for a tough job.
Some communities, mostly smaller ones, don't participate in the Quinn bill program and have developed their own plans through the years. Avon police, for instance, have a system in which officers receive small step raises as they complete courses, but before they earn a degree.
Chiefs say police work has become increasingly complicated and officers on the street need all the education they can get.
Across the state, police departments have become more professional over the years. In Duxbury, for example, about 60 percent of the force had degrees five years ago, while more than three-quarters do now. It's a change applauded by chiefs.
"You give someone a badge, you give someone a gun, you want them to be the best educated as you can," said John Cowan, chief in East Bridgewater. "We get reviewed by attorneys for months on decisions we have to make in a split second on the street."
Twenty years ago, it was rare to find an officer with a bachelor's, said Cowan. Now, five of East Bridgewater's 23-member police force have master's degrees, he said.
Matt Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.