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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Farah Stockman

Do Boston police deserve a 25 percent raise?

Cite firefighters to justify pay hike, but it’s the wrong comparison

Nearly a third of all Boston police officers earned more than Governor Deval Patrick.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File

Nearly a third of all Boston police officers earned more than Governor Deval Patrick.

Here’s a fun fact that didn’t come up in yesterday’s City Council hearing: 141 cops in Boston earned a bigger paycheck than the mayor did last year. That’s right. Mayor Menino earns $175,000. If you count base pay, the Quinn Bill education bonus, details, and overtime, 141 cops earned more.

Another fact: Nearly a third of all Boston police officers earned more than Governor Deval Patrick. The governor earned $137,000 last year. About 600 cops took home more.

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No one disputes that police officers, many of whom work long hours and face danger in their jobs, deserve to be well-paid for what they do. But take a good look at police salaries, and you’ll find that they already are.

Boston police officers are among the best-paid public employees, not only in the city, but in the country. Eighty-six earned more than Secretary of State John Kerry. Nine earned more than the vice president. As in, of the United States.

So what reason could the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association possibly give for seeking what amounts to a 25.4 percent raise over six years, while other public unions got just 12 percent?

Did cops argue that they had become 25 percent more productive? Or that the job had become 25 percent more difficult? That the cost of living had skyrocketed? Or the city had become so flush that everybody deserves more? No. None of these arguments, which the rest of us have to make to get a raise, need apply.

Boston police need give only one reason for the supposed unfairness of their wages. Instead of comparing themselves with the governor, the mayor, or the average Bostonian, cops keep their eyes trained on a single reference point: Boston firefighters, who got a 19 percent raise in 2010.

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The idea that police and firefighters are supposed to earn the same amount — known as “parity” — has been around for more than a century. But what constitutes equal pay between firefighters (who work two 24-hour shifts that allow them to hold second jobs) and police officers (who can’t take second jobs but who get details and overtime that add up to similar hours worked)? This has sparked expensive disputes, from San Francisco to Baltimore.

In Boston, the average patrolman took home $109,847, while the average firefighter earned $109,090. That sounds like parity to me.

But police argue that they are underpaid. They say the money they make on details — extra jobs directing traffic around construction sites — shouldn’t count, because it isn’t factored into their pensions.

That logic requires us to pretend that the tens of thousands in detail pay that cops make is inconsequential. If details are so inconsequential, then why do cops fight like the devil for them? In 2005, after details at a transit construction site were given to MBTA cops, Boston police filed a complaint and forced the city to pay $270,000 for details they had not even worked. Now they are arguing the same about work done by municipal security guards on City Hall Plaza. Make no mistake: Details are a jealously guarded and fiercely defended benefit that politicians remove at their peril.

There’s another disingenuous point in the cops’ complaint about their wages. To the extent that police don’t have “parity” with firefighters, it’s their own fault. They deliberately departed from firefighters’ pay, back in 1998, when they thought they could make more. They wanted the Quinn Bill, which gave cops a 10 percent bonus for getting an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a bachelor’s, and 25 percent for a master’s. Not a one-time bonus, but an annual bonus for the rest of their working lives. To get this, cops agreed to forgo raises for several years. They were warned that the strategy was risky. The state — which paid half the cost — could pull out at any time. And sure enough, in 2010, the state stopped paying. The city still pays its share, but bonuses were cut in half. It’s rough to see thousands of dollars cut from your paycheck. But the cops knowingly gambled and lost. Now they want the rest of us to foot the bill.

Let’s take a reality check. The Quinn Bill benefits are still a great deal. The only guy who bellyaches about a $7,800 bonus is a guy who used to get $15,600. How many of you ordinary folks out there get an education bonus like that? I sure don’t. Most of the rest of us have to get our college degrees (all by ourselves!) before we have any hope of earning what Boston cops make.

Disingenuous as the police union’s negotiating position may be, the arbitrator bought it. City councilors vote on the award Wednesday. Although one called the award “jaw-dropping” and others said it was the result of a “broken” system, there is little chance they will muster the political courage to vote it down. But this won’t be the end of the story. If the patrolmen get this raise, so too will the detectives and their superior officers. The real cost of this contract will be far more than the $87 million you have been hearing about. It will be more like $142 million.

And that’s not counting the raise that firefighters will surely demand in the future. Just because this arbitrator decided that detail pay shouldn’t count doesn’t mean another arbitrator won’t decide just the opposite. Parity is in the eye of the beholder. It means whatever it has to mean for the next union to argue they don’t have it. It’s like a “Three Stooges’’ routine, where each union takes turns slapping the taxpayer. That’s how salaries go floating off into the stratosphere, above the mayor, the governor, the secretary of state, unmoored from the realities of ordinary people.

There was a lot of talk during this past mayoral election about how the police force must reflect the demographics of the city. Those who said it, including Mayor-elect Marty Walsh, meant that we need more people of color on the force. It’s true. But race isn’t the only thing that separates cops from the neighborhoods they serve. Today, police don’t live in the same economic universe as the rest of us. Twenty percent of Bostonians live on food stamps. The median household income in Boston is $51,000, including homes with two breadwinners. Meanwhile, about 70 percent of sworn officers took home more than $100,000 last year. Cops are doing so well that they move out of the city as soon as they are allowed, after 10 years of service. Only 37 percent of superior officers live in Boston. The rest have decamped to places like Hanover and Walpole. And who can blame them? The city can be expensive, right? And the public schools are not so great, right?

Which brings me to my final point.

The arbitrator, in his wisdom, admits that this award is “costly” but claims that it “does not exceed the city’s ability to pay.” But the money has to come from somewhere. The city already expects a shortfall of $30 million in 2015. Ultimately, this hefty raise will come from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers — many of whom have never gotten a raise that big in their lives. Or it will come from cuts to other city departments.

Which makes me wonder: What would happen if the Ghost of Christmas Future visited Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association President Tom Nee and opened his eyes to the fiscal damage that this cop-firefighter arms race does to the city? If police accepted a 12 percent raise like everybody else, the city would have an extra $71 million over six years to make a game-changing investment in something else. That’s enough to send 7,100 kids to a year of quality preschool, something Marty Walsh called a top priority. Consider that a grant of just $4 million helped turn Orchard Gardens K-8 school from one of the city’s worst schools into one of the best. If police took a 12 percent raise, instead of 25, we could afford 17 more Orchard Gardens. The arbitrator mentioned that police keep us safe, and that safety is the key to prosperity. He’s right. But the highest level of safety and prosperity will be achieved when everyone in this city has a shot at a good education and a job, not just Boston police.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.

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