Local cities and towns say the state’s decision to drastically cut funding of the Quinn Bill program has put them unfairly on the hook for sustaining the program, and has put the entire program in peril.
A drastic cut in state funding this year, and more on the way, could mean the end of a 40-year-old program that pays a premium to college-educated police officers, city and town leaders say.
Promises of additional state cuts come July 1 would have municipalities footing the bill for more than 90 percent of the cost, something local officials say is impossible in today’s fiscal climate.
The program, called the Quinn Bill, increases the base pay of officers who have college degrees – a 10 percent bump in pay for an associate degree, 20 percent for a bachelor’s degree and 25 percent for a master’s degree.
Proponents say the program has produced a more professional local police force; opponents say a college degree should be considered a prerequisite for the job, not something that leads to a bonus.
Quincy Police Chief Paul Keenan said he has been in police work long enough to see the difference the Quinn Bill has made in improving investigations and reducing lawsuits and corruption.
“Personally, I think the Quinn Bill was one of the best things to happen to policing,” he said.
The debate is heating up locally as cities and towns shape their spending plans for the fiscal year that begins July 1. It is the first time they have done so with certain knowledge of the shift in state spending on the program.
State funding for the Quinn Bill this year dropped from $50.2 million to $10 million, and the state declined to reimburse city and towns for any future police department hires.
Gov. Deval Patrick is asking legislators to consider another $5 million cut in state funding of the Quinn Bill as of July 1.
City and town officials say that when they signed up for the program it was with a guarantee that the state would reimburse for half the cost of providing the incentive to officers.
Some communities have reacted by continuing to pay only their 50 percent, a decision opposed by police unions, whose members saw their paychecks drop by thousands of dollars in just a year, sometimes on top of wage freezes.
Without a degree, the average officer’s starting salary in the state is about $50,000.
In a handful of cases, including in Scituate, the unions are fighting back in court. Policy analysts say the judges’ decisions in these cases will have far-reaching influence.
“If the Scituate suit is successful, this would change from a local option program to a massive unfunded mandate that would create significant disruption in communities all across the state,” said Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
The tug of war has played out differently across communities, based on whether the town’s funding obligation is spelled out in the police union contract.
In Scituate and Marshfield, where police officers received reduced payments this year, union contracts said that if state reimbursements dipped, the town would only have to pay its share. In Rockland, police officers received one partial payment, and the rest is in question.
Other communities – Braintree, Hingham, Hull, Norwell, Milton, Weymouth and Quincy – gave officers full payments this year but negotiated contract concessions or made budget cuts elsewhere to offset the cost. Officials say they cannot maintain full payments for the long term.
“It’s created a real serious financial and collective bargaining predicament for local communities,” said Jim Lampke, executive director of the City Solicitors and Town Counsel Association.
Quincy’s police union contract is unusual because it requires the city to pay whatever the state does not cover. This year, the program cost the city $2.9 million; it will only be reimbursed for about a tenth of that amount.
“It’s a significant cost,” said Kevin Mearn, Milton’s town administrator, who was police chief in Milton for 15 years before becoming town administrator and is a strong proponent of the Quinn Bill. “Milton could never afford in today’s financial setting funding the full thing without the state’s reimbursement.”
Beckwith said his group has asked the state to give cities and towns immunity from covering the full cost of the Quinn Bill unless police contract language specifies otherwise. He said Patrick has introduced legislation to accomplish that.
But law enforcement officials say it would mean the end of the program and make it more difficult to hire or retain the most qualified officers.
“It’s disheartening to see it’s basically being dismantled because you don’t want to go back the other way,” said Keenan, the Quincy chief.
Jennifer Mann may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A SAMPLE OF LOCAL QUINN BILL COMMUNITIES
Source: Information was compiled through interviews with town officials, police chiefs or union representatives. The interpretation of contract language in some of these communities is under dispute.
CONTRACT SCENARIOS THAT INFLUENCE THE DEBATE
Lack of contract language
Most cities and towns have no language in their police union contract that speaks to what happens if the state’s funding share is reduced. The Massachusetts Municipal Association is asking the state to clarify the Quinn Bill statute so that it is clear these municipalities do not have to pay more than their 50 percent.
Local share limits
A smaller number of communities, mostly those which adopted the Quinn Bill in the last 15 years, included language in union contracts that states they are only responsible for half the cost of the program, even if state funding is eliminated. Officers in these communities have already seen reduced paychecks, and police unions are fighting back in court.
Payment promised in full
A very small number of communities – including Quincy – have union contracts that hold them to paying the program cost in full, with or without state reimbursement. They have few options for avoiding this payment unless contracts are renegotiated.