By James O’Brien, Globe Correspondent | May 27, 2010
A year after the state slashed $40 million from its contribution for police bonuses based on educational advancement, cities and towns are negotiating to restore some of the lost pay in exchange for givebacks such as abandoning civil service hiring, giving up control over health benefits, and taking smaller raises.
The bargaining has occurred in Brookline, Dover, Newton, Sherborn, and Wellesley, among other places, since the state reduced funding for its Quinn Bill program, which had paid for half of the annual salary bonuses. The bonuses can increase the pay for police officers by up to 25 percent.
In these communities, police have been willing to bargain and local officials have been anxious to avoid lawsuits over cuts to the payments.
However, in some cases police and local officials have been unable to agree on whether the community is responsible for the full Quinn Bill payments regardless of the state’s participation. Lawsuits have been filed by police unions in Wrentham, Mashpee, and Scituate.
Since it was passed in 1970, the Quinn Bill has provided Massachusetts police officers who obtain college diplomas — from associate’s to master’s degrees, in accredited criminal-justice related programs — with annual bonuses representing 10, 20, or 25 percent of their salaries.
While cities and towns had received about 50 percent of the cost of the bonuses through state reimbursements, last year’s decision by Beacon Hill reduced it to about 10 percent.
Hugh Cameron, president of one of the state’s largest police unions, the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, said that while it is early in the negotiation season, he thinks it’s likely that Quinn Bill cuts will be a consideration in a number of contract talks.
“I think towns have decided to negotiate in good faith to keep the Quinn Bill,’’ he said.
Cameron said a town such as Wellesley might set an example for the process.
In Wellesley, the town has agreed to pay Quinn bonuses to its current police officers according to the old system, but new hires, and officers newly eligible for educational benefits, will receive fixed bonuses rather than percentage increases. The amounts would be pegged at $8,000 to $10,000, $15,000, and $17,000, depending on the degree earned. In exchange, police have agreed that new hires and newly promoted officers will step out of the civil service system, which regulates hiring and promotions according to test results, and the union members will accept no cost-of-living raise for 2012, and a 1 percent increase for 2013.
According to Selectwoman Katherine Babson Jr., the board’s vice chairwoman, the arrangement will let the town “develop our own hiring and promotional criteria, and come up with one that is more flexible and more timely.’’
Deputy Police Chief William Brooks III said he expects other communities statewide will want to see the details of the Wellesley plan as contract negotiations begin, many of them next month.
Wellesley isn’t the only community where a deal has been struck.
In Sherborn, the town has agreed to pay new and newly eligible officers fixed-rate education bonuses instead of the previous percentage-based system.
Town Administrator Daniel Keyes said there is support for the Quinn Bill payments, noting, “We want an educated officer.’’
The police are taking smaller raises and fewer vacation days in return.
“The officers, in my opinion, understand and appreciate the fiscal constraints that most municipalities have right now,’’ said Police Chief Richard Thompson III.
Under the Sherborn plan, currently eligible officers, and newcomers who were eligible for bonuses at a different department will continue to receive their full Quinn Bill salary bumps, with the town paying the whole amount.
Newly eligible officers will receive $10,000 for a bachelor’s degree, $15,000 for a master’s or law degree. And new officers must have at least a bachelor’s degree to win a job with the department.
Thompson said the officers also agreed to a 1 1/2 percent raise for the year starting July 1, and gave back increases in vacation time and holiday pay they had expected to receive in coming years.
Dover has implemented an agreement under which the town will pay current officers, and those eligible in the future, their full Quinn Bill bonuses. In return, the police have granted the Board of Selectmen the authority to adjust their health insurance plan, free of collective bargaining, so long as the result is at least equal to the benefits received by other town departments.
Police Chief Joseph Griffin also gets the authority to approve salary increases for any educational degrees obtained by newly eligible officers in Dover, as opposed to only degrees related to the criminal justice field.
Newton Police Chief Matthew Cummings said all of his officers are receiving their full Quinn bonuses. But only the department’s superior officers — such as sergeants, lieutenants, and captains — have negotiated to continue to receive the bonuses. In exchange, the officers agreed to receive no pay increases for this fiscal year and next year.
The deal was struck last year between the superior officers and then-Mayor David Cohen. While the Quinn Bill bonuses for patrol officers are still being covered by the city, their contract negotiations are pending with the new mayor, Setti Warren.
“We will have to have that conversation quickly,’’ Cummings said of the talks between the patrol union and the city.
Quinn Bill payments will be negotiated after overall contract negotiations take place, said Dolores Hamilton, director of Newton’s Human Resources Department. Hamilton said such talks are at least a few months away.
In Brookline, Town Administrator Richard Kelliher said he hopes the town will soon start negotiating a new bonus system for its police officers.
Brookline is paying Quinn Bill bonuses to officers eligible for the plan, and in exchange the union agreed last August to no increases to their salaries in this fiscal year and the 2011 year, which starts July 1.
Details of what a new plan might look like were unavailable, but Police Chief Daniel O’Leary said he expected it would look “different than the Quinn Bill, when all is said and done.’’
In some communities, there are disagreements or uncertainty over the requirements for Quinn Bill benefits.
Wrentham, Mashpee, and Scituate face lawsuits for not paying the part of the bonuses the state no longer funds.
In Wrentham, Town Administrator John McFeeley said he does not believe that the town must make up for the state’s shortfall.
“We’re in a position in which the existing contract does have a clause, in which it says if the state doesn’t pay its share we’re not responsible for it,’’ said McFeeley.
But Bryan Decker, a Boston lawyer representing police officers in Wrentham and Mashpee, said the law requires communities to pay the Quinn Bill bonuses regardless of whether the state offers adequate reimbursements, and even if labor contracts do not specify that a community must pick up the state’s share.
Meanwhile, in Shrewsbury, Assistant Town Manager Michael Hale said his community can’t afford to make up for the state’s smaller reimbursements.
Shrewsbury is paying only its half of the bonuses, in addition to the approximately 10 percent the state still funds.
Initial talks with police about what to do next have been conducted, said Hale, but he worries that the town’s financial constraints might have wider consequences, and sooner rather than later.
“Candidly, for those communities who fund it, they may take some of the high-quality officers from those who don’t,’’ Hale said. “That’s a concern for us, next year.’’