Cities and towns across the region plan to pay police officers millions of dollars in educational benefits previously provided by the state, despite a recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling that found they are not required to pay the extra money.
Earlier this month, the state’s highest court ruled that local communities don’t automatically have to pick up the state’s share of costs of the Quinn Bill, the 1970 law that provides extra pay to officers who have received college degrees.
This fiscal year, the Legislature stopped paying its share of the education benefit, which can add thousands of dollars to a police officer’s annual salary. But some cities and towns agreed to continue paying the benefit, often in exchange for wage concessions in contract negotiations. Some have even extended the incentive to new hires.
In Milton, the Board of Selectmen decided to develop its own education incentive in 2009, when the state wavered on its commitment to Quinn Bill funding. The town ditched the program, but not its framework.
The package that Milton officials came up with mirrors the state program, but it is locally funded, said Kevin Mearn, the town administrator.
Town officials felt it was important to have an educated police force, and the unions gave up some of their accumulated sick leave and longevity benefits in return, Mearn said.
This year, Milton expects to spend about $515,000 on the police education benefits. “It’s a moot point,’’ said Mearn of the recent Supreme Judicial Court decision.
The SJC decision stemmed from a challenge by a group of Boston police officers who argued that the city is required to pay the Quinn Bill benefits in full, regardless of the state’s contribution. The court rejected the officers’ claim.
Philip Collins, a Norwood attorney who works with dozens of communities in the Boston area on labor issues, said the ruling frees municipalities from paying the state’s portion unless they agree to do so in their contracts with police unions. The court said communities must continue to fulfill their local obligations.
Many municipalities have cemented their full obligation in their contracts in recent years, he said. Some feared that, without the agreement, the police unions could mount legal challenges and prevail in court, forcing them to pay significant damages. Other communities did not want their officers to lose a large portion of their pay and negotiated other concessions, Collins said.
“I don’t think there are that many communities that have taken the money away from officers,’’ he said.
Michael Widmer, the president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, said he is surprised that, given the fiscal pressures facing many communities, they would choose to cover the state’s portion of the benefit and offer newer employees an education incentive.
“This is an outdated benefit,’’ Widmer said. “I think it should be a basic requirement for a police officer to have’’ a bachelor’s degree.
The Quinn Bill was meant to encourage police to get an education by rewarding them with a 10 percent raise for an associate’s degree, a 20 percent bump in pay for a bachelor’s degree, and 25 percent more for a master’s degree. The state initially shared the cost equally with communities that adopted the bill.
But over the years, as more police opted for degrees, the costs ballooned. Communities also questioned the compounded costs, since police officers who were receiving education benefits also had to be paid more for overtime work. The program also spurred diploma mills that offered questionable educational training to officers.
The Legislature eliminated funding entirely this fiscal year.
In Quincy, police contracts have long required that the city pay the total Quinn Bill benefits if the state stopped the program, said Chris Walker, spokesman for Mayor Thomas Koch.
The cost of paying Quincy police officers who have received associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees is expected to be $2.9 million this fiscal year, he said.
Norwood is among the few municipalities in the region that have not picked up the state’s share of the Quinn Bill.
The city’s contract with its unions specified that Norwood would cover half the cost, General Manager John Carroll said.
Norwood is expecting to spend $300,000 this fiscal year.
Carroll declined to say what the town would do in light of the SJC decision, because negotiations with the unions are in progress. The decision “certainly comported with our language perfectly,’’ he said.
Timothy Burke, an attorney representing the Norwood patrolmen’s union, said the court decision has made his job persuading town officials to provide the full Quinn Bill benefits more difficult.
“Obviously, everybody looks for the quick fix to save money, in difficult economic times,’’ Burke said. “I know I would prefer having somebody who has as much education as possible.’’
Burke has argued that Norwood will lose officers to neighboring towns and have a difficult time recruiting if it does not offer more education incentives.
“It’s not a question of if, but when,’’ he said. “If you have an $8,000 to $12,000 differential between departments, that’s substantial.’’
Plymouth’s contracts required the town to pay the full amount of the Quinn Bill if the state reduced its share, said Mark Stankiewicz, the town manager.
The Boston officers’ challenge and ensuing debate about the education incentives helped Plymouth negotiate a benefits package for new employees, Stankiewicz said. Recent hires with bachelor’s degrees will get $5,000 more and those with a master’s degree will earn an additional $7,500, he said.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.