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Quinn Bill funds gutted in budget

Cities, towns left to cover most of the police bonus

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / July 1, 2009
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The state’s $40 million cut this week in a bonus program for local police officers has put many cities and towns across Massachusetts in legal and financial limbo, as they wrestle with unexpected salary costs, sudden retirements, and potentially thorny negotiations with labor unions.

The budget that Governor Deval Patrick signed into law Monday guts the program, known as the Quinn Bill, which boosts the salaries of police officers with college degrees. Lawmakers reduced its funding by 80 percent from last year, from more than $50 million to $10 million.

The program’s costs are typically split 50-50 between the state and the 254 participating communities. But following the dramatic cut, municipal officials, police chiefs, and unions across the state are scrambling to determine if local taxpayers will have to make up the difference or if thousands of officers will lose at least part of an annual benefit that averages more than $10,000.

In some communities, police unions had negotiated that local taxpayers would pay for the entirety of the benefit if the state cut Quinn Bill funding. That means cash-strapped Lynn, which recently laid off more than 100 school employees and 40 municipal workers, must now foot the bill for an additional $500,000 to pay police officers who have pursued degrees beyond high school.

“What they’re doing in Boston just passes the buck down here locally to us,’’ said Mayor Edward J. Clancy Jr.of Lynn.

In addition to gutting funding, lawmakers and the governor also barred any officers hired starting today from participating in the incentive program.

The dramatic changes to the Quinn Bill - fiercely protected by law enforcement, but often controversial since its 1970 enactment - could prompt legal battles between unions and municipalities and shake up police departments.

Chiefs, officers, and local officials also said yesterday that they expect it to trigger a wave of retirements, and they worry it could discourage future officers from joining police ranks.

“This is a very big issue, and it needs to be clarified immediately,’’ said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents local government. “Cities and towns are completely innocent in this.’’

The Quinn Bill encourages police officers to pursue higher education by rewarding them with a 10 percent bonus for an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a bachelor’s degree, and 25 percent for a master’s. Everyone is eligible, from patrolmen to chiefs. Communities front the money and are supposed to be reimbursed by the state for half.

But the mechanics of the Quinn Bill are different from community to community. Some pay the bonus in an annual lump sum, and some include it in weekly paychecks. Some negotiated the benefit with unions as part of their contracts, others as side deals; still others enacted the program without any contract language or union negotiations.

Scores of communities do not address or only partially address the issue of a state cut in their labor contracts, leaving them in a kind of no man’s land starting today, the first day of the new fiscal year. In many cities and towns, police officers will simply see their pay docked.

The lack of debate on Beacon Hill about cutting the Quinn Bill irked municipal leaders and the law enforcement community. In the past, the controversy about the Quinn Bill has not been about the end goal - building a more professional and polished police force - but about the size of the payouts and the rigor of the academic programs.

“This is something that should be phased in over a period of years, rather than all of a sudden coming in with a dramatic cut,’’ said Mayor Scott W. Lang, of New Bedford, whose city, after recent police layoffs, may try to absorb this year’s Quinn Bill cut for the sake of public safety and department morale. “You touch one lever, you think you’re accomplishing one thing, but it causes tremendous unintended consequences across the board.’’

In the fiscal year that ended yesterday, 9,912 officers received the Quinn Bill benefit in 254 communities, according to Sarah Mealey, spokeswoman for the state Department of Higher Education, which certifies the eligibility of officers and accredits their education programs.

A full share from the state this fiscal year would amount to $58 million, according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. As Patrick and top lawmakers drafted and revised the budget to square it with plummeting revenues, the state’s proposed share continued to fall: to $25 million in the approved House budget, $10 million in the Senate budget, to zero in a revision Patrick filed June 4, and back to $10 million in the final compromise.

“There were cuts across the board in the budget, and no one was spared,’’ said David Falcone, a spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray.

“The president believes in a professional police force and that they should be paid more if they earn an advanced degree, similar to teachers,’’ Falcone said. “But unfortunately the state won’t have the money to do it, and it’s going to have to come from municipalities.’’