Cash-strapped cities and towns across Massachusetts could be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars if the state’s highest court finds in favor of police officers who say they are entitled to the full amount of an education bonus program.
The lawsuit, which goes before the Supreme Judicial Court tomorrow, was filed by Boston police officers. It centers on the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, also known as the Quinn Bill, which awards salary bonuses to officers who earn college degrees in criminal justice or law.
Traditionally, the cost of the program was split equally between the state and the municipalities that chose to participate.
But in 2009, the state eliminated nearly all funding for the program to help close a budget gap, a move that infuriated police officers whose salaries fell suddenly and dramatically.
Many municipalities, including Boston, continued to pay their share of the program, but refused to fund the state’s half.
Lawyers for police officers will argue in court that Boston must pick up the full amount, even though the state has stopped reimbursing it for the costs. The city argues that police union contracts say Boston is responsible for only half the amount.
If the officers win, the case will have ripple effects across the state and require dozens of communities, many already facing lawsuits from their officers, to pay the state’s portion.
“This is a very important case for cities and towns in terms of their finances,’’ said Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “If they are forced to pick up the state’s share of the Quinn Bill costs, it will be another blow to municipal finances. Certainly, in some communities, there will be the ironic outcome of layoffs of police officers if municipalities are required to pick up the state’s share.’’
If the court sides with the officers, Boston could owe nearly $16.8 million in back pay for hundreds of officers. And, going forward, Boston officials estimate they would be responsible for about $10 million a year to cover what used to be the state’s half of the program.
Police say they are, by law, owed the money, which can boost an officer’s pay by as much 25 percent.
The Quinn Bill, named after former attorney general Robert H. Quinn, was passed in 1970 and was designed to encourage higher education in a field that was rapidly professionalizing.
“Law enforcement is no longer a blue-collar profession,’’ said Gerry Sanfilippo, president of the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society. “This job is becoming increasingly more difficult to do today. . . . We should be recognized for that fact, we should be appreciated for that fact, and we should be compensated for that fact.’’
The case has sparked anger toward Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature, which slashed funding for the program to $10 million in fiscal 2010 from $50.2 million in fiscal 2009.
The cut effectively killed the benefit for officers hired after July 1, 2009. Starting July 1, 2011 the state contributed nothing to municipal benefits.
Only State Police are exempt from the cuts because the state does not dispute that it is contractually obligated to fund the benefit for troopers.
“It would be the moral obligation of the state to remedy the situation by passing legislation that clarified and made it indisputable that the state would be responsible for its share or that the cities and towns are not,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a private budget watchdog group. “The state’s financial situation has improved a little bit. I can’t imagine that there won’t be an effort on the part of cities and towns to make that case if the court decides in the favor of the [officers].’’
Alex Zaroulis, spokeswoman for Patrick’s budget chief, Jay Gonzalez, said: “We’re not going to comment on pending litigation before the SJC.’’
In 2000, officers began receiving the benefits after their unions agreed, through arbitration or negotiation, that they would not force the city to pay the state’s half if the state should stop funding the program. In exchange, the unions made concessions, such as agreeing to drug testing and zero percent wage increases in salaries.
But those contracts are trumped by state law, said Bryan Decker, one of the attorneys for the officers, who are members of the city’s three police unions.
“The courts and the law very clearly say that, in certain areas, it’s not OK to bargain and you can’t give away your members’ rights,’’ Decker said. “These officers took up to 12 percent wage cuts overnight, with no warning . . . I feel bad for the city. Let’s face it, they took a local aid cut. But tough economic times don’t let you throw out the law.’’
Kay Hodge, a lawyer representing the city of Boston, said the city has kept its end of the bargain, but now unions, through their officers, are trying to renege on the deal.
“They were a party to that agreement, but they’re saying, ‘No, no, no, you need to pay us off anyway,’ ’’ Hodge said. “Frankly, I’m not sure that that’s the way we ought to be dealing with each other. Each side ought to uphold its end of the agreement.’’
Boston officials said they are receiving dozens of calls from other towns and cities with similar agreements, worried about the possible implications of the SJC decision.
Some towns, more recently Falmouth, have already settled with their officers and agreed to pay the full amount in exchange for zero percent salary increases.
“Communities who have these contracts in place are obviously quite anxious about the decision,’’ said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which has filed a brief on behalf of the city of Boston. “If the state had said there is a chance that we won’t fund this and you will be responsible, no city and town would have adopted this.’’