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 communities do not automatically have to pick up the state’s share of costs of the Quinn Bill, a 1970s law that provides incentive 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 cover the state’s portion, often in exchange for wage concessions in contract negotiations. Some have even extended the incentive to new hires.
In communities across the region, including Concord, Framingham, Lexington, and Newton, education benefits worth thousands of dollars for police officers are continuing strong.
“My administration is committed to the Quinn Bill,’’ Newton Mayor Setti Warren said in an e-mail. “Public safety is a priority, and it is essential that we have a highly trained and educated police force to keep our community safe.’’
Newton negotiated contracts with its police unions last year specifying that the city would cover the program’s total cost for both existing and new officers.
For this fiscal year, Newton budgeted $1.3 million for Quinn Bill benefits, city officials said. The city has also expanded education incentive pay for firefighters.
The high court’s decision frees localities from paying the state portion of the educational incentive, unless they have agreed to do so in their union contracts, said Philip Collins, a Norwood lawyer who works with dozens of communities in Greater Boston on labor issues. The court said communities must continue to fulfill their local obligations.
Many communities moved quickly to cement their full contributions in union contracts, Collins said.
Some feared that the court would rule in favor of the police employees, and towns would be forced 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, and offer newer employees the education incentive.
“This is an outdated benefit,’’ Widmer said, adding, “I think it should be a basic requirement for a police officer’’ to have a bachelor’s degree.
Concord took on the state’s portion of the bill in recent years, even though union contracts had required the town to pay only its share of the benefits. In exchange, the town received some concessions from the police, including a curb on wage increases for a few years, said Town Manager Chris Whelan.
The union also agreed that new employees should receive a flat rate for education incentives, instead of a percentage of their base salary as the Quinn Bill provides, Whelan said.
‘If you’re going to . . . keep people, you’re not going to do it on the base salary that we pay police officers.’Carl Valente , Lexington town manager
The flat dollar amounts are less generous than the Quinn Bill benefits, and provide administrators more control, he said.
Concord expects to spend about $320,000 on Quinn Bill benefits this year, Whelan said.
While the state’s highest court upheld contracts such as the one Concord initially had, Whelan said he is comfortable with the deal that he and the unions struck.
“You want to have an educated force,’’ Whelan said.
In Widmer’s view, the flat dollar payment is a better way of controlling costs than percentage increases.
One community that refused to pick up the state’s portion of the payments is Burlington, where some officers this year lost about $10,000 from their paychecks, said Bob Mercier, the town administrator.
“I take no pleasure in rolling back somebody’s salary,’’ Mercier said. “We took a risk, no question about it. . . . It’s all about the principle.’’
Burlington’s contract specifically stated that the town would not pay the state’s share.
The town is in the midst of negotiations with its police unions, and the court decision will help as leverage, he said.
Despite the victory, the town plans to offer some sort of education benefits for police officers, probably slightly different than the Quinn program, Mercier said.
“I don’t have any qualms for paying for education,’’ he said.
The Quinn Bill, passed in 1970, was meant to encourage police to get an education by rewarding them with a 10 percent raise from their base salary for an associate’s degree, a 20 percent bump for a bachelor’s degree, and 25 percent for a master’s degree. The state shared the cost equally with communities that adopted the bill.
But over the years, as more police opted for degrees, the cost 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.
Then the state Legislature, facing its own budget woes, started reducing its contributions, and entirely eliminated funding this fiscal year.
The court’s decision stemmed from a challenge by a group of Boston police officers, who argued that the city is required to provide the full level of benefits, regardless of the state’s contribution.
Framingham Police Chief Steven Carl said the reasons behind the adoption of the Quinn Bill still exist today.
Police officers have to deal with complex situations and need the critical thinking skills that a college education can provide, Carl said.
And towns are also increasingly hiring war veterans who went straight from high school into the military and are now carrying a badge, Carl said. They haven’t had a chance to go back to college, he said.
Framingham expects to spend just over $1 million in education incentives for its officers. In 2010, the town negotiated with the unions to pay the full cost of Quinn Bill benefits to officers already in the program, and a lower, flat rate for police officers hired after 2009, Carl said.
For new officers, the education incentive isn’t as generous, providing officers who earn a bachelor’s degree a $4,500 boost, and those who get a master’s degree a $7,000 annual increase, he said.
In exchange for keeping the education benefits, the town’s police unions agreed to give up some training days and other allowances, he said.
“It’s a very fair settlement,’’ Carl said. “We wanted to maintain a competitive edge.’’
Like Framingham, Lexington is covering the full cost of Quinn Bill benefits for officers in the program, and a fixed-rate incentive for new hires. Police officers hired after 2009 get $5,000 more for an associate’s degree and $10,000 for a bachelor’s or master’s degree, said Town Manager Carl Valente.
Lexington, which expects to spend about $545,000 annually on Quinn Bill benefits, negotiated its deal after looking at what neighboring towns offered, Valente said.
Lexington wasn’t the only town driven to keep education incentives because of a fear of competition.
“I would suspect that those who stopped paying it are going to have more difficulty recruiting,’’ Valente said. “If you’re going to recruit and hire and keep people, you’re not going to do it on the base salary that we pay police officers.’’Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.