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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Counsel for self-pitying city councilors

Everyone is apparently a victim in one way or another when it comes to the debate about the expensive new contract an arbitrator recently awarded the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.

The police officers certainly are. I know that because Thomas Nee, president of the BPPA, said so at Tuesday’s City Council hearing about that contract.

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“We’re playing catch-up,” Nee declared. “We’re the victims here.”

Now, give credit where it’s due. The likable if not always logical union chief and his team comported themselves in generally gentlemanly fashion. And one can certainly understand where they are coming from. The generous contract the firefighters got last time around after securing an outsized arbitration award means the police, by their calculation, have fallen behind when it comes to pay. For them, the big imperative is to catch up. Matters like the affordability and budgetary effects of this contract aren’t their primary concerns. Those are issues for . . . well, for the Boston City Council.

But councilors are also feeling victimized.

“I can’t believe we’re here again,” fumed Councilor Bill Linehan. One contract controversy barely ends before the next begins, or so it seems to the sage of South Boston. Back in 2010 the City Council had to decide whether to fund the firefighters’ arbitration award. And now, just three years later, they have been called upon to determine whether the police package is appropriate and affordable. Why, that means mulling several pages of figures. Percentages, even!

Councilor Ayanna Pressley was also miffed. It was hard, she said, not be resentful at the position she found herself in. Deciding tough contract issues wasn’t her job, she declared. No, indeed! After all, what do people think city councilors are, elected officials or something?

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Others, like Matt O’Malley, were obviously casting about for something — anything — on which to hang a yes vote.

Yet there was some good news. Mike Ross, Sal LaMattina, Mark Ciommo, and Charles Yancey actually seemed to be wrestling with the thorny issues this arbitrator’s package raises. Such as, what should public-safety pay parity really mean? And: If the council funds this package, what will the effect be on other contracts? And on the rest of the budget?

Here’s what jumped out at me: According to the city, when overtime and details are included, the average rank-and-file firefighter and the average BPPA member make about the same amount of money. None of the councilors followed up on that. Had they, here’s what they would have learned: The average annual total compensation is $109,847 for the police, $109,090 for the firefighters.

Now, Nee would have you think that the police work much longer hours to get there. Not really. According to the city’s data, the average police officer works 117 hours more a year (or about 2.5 hours a week) than the average firefighter. (I asked both Nee and the BPPA’s legal team for figures that might challenge the city’s data, but got nothing.)

To make the case that its members have fallen far behind, the BPPA contends that only base salary should count in pay comparisons. Why? Because the dollars from details and overtime don’t count toward one’s pension.

But you can’t simply dismiss as irrelevant the $33,000, on average, that police get in overtime and detail pay. That’s real money. Although it doesn’t count for pension purposes, police could certainly tuck some of those extra earnings into a tax-free retirement savings plan.

Further, if the council does fund this arbitration award, it can count on this: The firefighters, whose contract expired in 2011, will soon be arguing that pay parity requires that they get the same overall percentage increase as the police got. And they may well find an arbitrator who agrees.

To protect taxpayers, the city needs to settle on a concrete definition of what pay parity means. And the City Council has to make it clear that they won’t fund arbitration awards based on a different definition.

Otherwise, Councilors Linehan and Pressley and their beleaguered brethren may find themselves right back in this spot in the near future.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.

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