Leaders of the Boston police patrolmen’s union called on the City Council Tuesday to approve funding for an arbitrator’s award that calls for a 25.4 percent pay raise over six years, an amount that labor officials said will begin to put officers’ base salaries in line with the city’s firefighters.
“Support and fund this award,” Thomas Nee, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association told the council during a three-hour hearing that was marked at times by tension as city and union officials disputed each other’s facts.
It was the first time Nee has spoken publicly about the award, which calls for 13.5 percent in raises and additional money for longevity benefits, bonuses for officers with college degrees, and other perks that bring the total package to just over 25 percent.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who did not attend the hearing, has railed against the award, calling it too expensive and warning that it continues a pattern of large awards that could eventually threaten the city’s economic stability.
Until Tuesday, union officials had been silent on the matter, speaking privately with city councilors but not returning calls from the press.
During the hearing, Nee said it was disrespectful to criticize the award in the media and scoffed at figures the administration has cited, stating that police and firefighters both earn an average of just under $110,000 a year when overtime and detail pay is included.
Nee said that for the average police officer to earn that amount, he or she has to work 65 hours a week 52 weeks a year. Base pay for a firefighter is on average $15,000 more a year, according to city data.
“What officers are willing to risk is immeasurable,” Nee said. “Let’s stop dragging the good name of good police officers through the mud as though they did something wrong.”
The hearing was emotional at times, with representatives of the union and the city often shaking their heads when the other side was talking. But the tenor was far calmer than hearings in 2010 when the City Council weighed whether to approve a 19 percent salary increase awarded to firefighters, who packed the chambers.
Officials for the patrolmen’s union said that even with the increases offered in the award, only members with 25 years or more of service — roughly 350 of about 1,500 members — will achieve parity, or equal pay, with firefighters. Younger officers will still lag behind, they said.
“This arbitration award does not achieve the goals of the [Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association], far from it,” said Susan F. Horwitz, the union lawyer. “We believe that every police officer should receive pay equal to their counterpart in the Fire Department and that there is no justification for that not to be the case.”
City officials have argued that the disparity between base pay for police officers and firemen is largely a result of previous contract negotiations, notably in 2001 and 2002, when police went without pay raises in exchange for receiving benefits from the Quinn Bill, a state program that boosted salaries of officers who furthered their education. The cost of the program was split between the city and the state, which stopped funding its half in 2009.
“To what extent is the union responsible for its own bargaining choices?” said John Dunlap, the city’s labor relations chief, who represented the Menino administration during the arbitration.
In making their case, both sides rattled off numbers at an often dizzying pace. Union officials said that when the state eliminated funding for the Quinn bill, hundreds of officers lost 12½ percent of their pay.
Administration officials, who had initially estimated the cost of the award at $80 million, said Thursday that it would actually cost $87 million.
Meredith Weenick, the city’s chief financial officer, said that her office has noted a $30 million budget gap in the fiscal 2015 budget, which must be balanced before the budget goes to the City Council for approval next June. The cost of the award would add another $13 million to that gap, she said, meaning the city might have to cut from other departments. “Can I tell you today what the implications of this award will be? No, I cannot,” Weenick said. “I can say today that that entire [deficit] cannot be made up in revenue alone. It will have to come from other things, other choices.”
Still, several city councilors appeared sympathetic to the union’s argument that the base salaries need to be equal between firefighters and police.
“I struggle with the idea that a rank-and-file officer to make the same amount as a firefighter, they have got to provide more hours to the job than their counterpart in public safety,” said Councilor at Large Felix Arroyo. “We’re asking them to do some of the most dangerous work that you can ask a municipal employee to do. This could be a moment for us to do what’s right by their families.”
Councilor Sal LaMattina agreed, but he also cautioned that other unions could demand similar packages. The city’s four other police unions are still negotiating contracts, and the firefighters’ contract expired in 2011. “When is enough enough?” he asked.
No vote was scheduled, but at the behest of the council, union and city officials agreed to make a joint request to the arbitrator, Timothy J. Buckalew, to issue a written explanation for his decision.
Rosemarie Buckley of Dracut, whose daughter Roseann Sdoia lost her right leg in the Boston Marathon bombing attacks, implored the council to give the police what they asked.
“Be wise,” she said. “Pay them.”Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.