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The state's highest court ruled Wednesday that Massachusetts communities are not obligated to pay the state's share of education benefits to police officers, a decision that could save local governments millions at officers' expense.

In a highly anticipated decision, the court held that cities and towns are not legally responsible for offsetting deep state cutbacks to the Quinn Bill, a 1970s law that boosts the salaries of officers who further their education in the field.

Communities had generally shared the cost of the benefits with the state until 2009, when lawmakers slashed funding from more than $50 million to $10 million. The state has since eliminated its funding altogether.

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The court ruled that communities who participate in the optional program must continue to pay their half but do not have to pick up additional costs.

"Municipalities may agree to pay more, but the statute does not require it,'' the decision stated.

The decision effectively makes the incentive program, long criticized as a boondoggle, a local matter, and gives communities far more latitude to reduce benefits.

Some communities had increased payments to make up for some or all of the lost state funding.

Town officials, who had feared they would be forced to assume the program's entire cost, hailed the decision.

"They are breathing a sigh of relief,'' said Philip Collins, a lawyer who represents a number of communities.

Boston, for example, would have owed police officers nearly $17 million in back pay.

Law enforcement officials swiftly denounced the ruling, saying it will hurt officers financially and further weaken incentives for them to continue their studies.

"We would certainly hope for the benefit of the profession that communities would negotiate with their employees to incorporate these benefits,'' said A. Wayne Sampson, who directs the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. "We believe that it has provided for a better-educated work force.''

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Communities have responded to the state cuts in a variety of ways.

Some have negotiated with police unions to lower payments, while others have agreed to maintain the benefits in exchange for lower wage hikes.

But the court's ruling is likely to change the dynamics in future contract talks.

"Those municipalities that have been paying and now know they aren't required to may consider negotiating with their employees,'' Sampson said.

The court's decision stemmed from a challenge by a group of Boston police officers, who argued that the city is required to pay the benefits in full, regardless of the state's contribution.

After the cut in state reimbursements, city officials told officers they would reduce Quinn Bill payments in kind.

The two sides had previously agreed that if the state reduced its contributions, the city would not be required to make up the difference.

Police officers contended that those provisions were invalid because they conflicted with state law, but the court found otherwise.

"The Legislature in drafting the statute intended a system of shared funding,'' the ruling stated. "The statute is 'simply silent' as to a requirement to pay more than one-half.''

The lawyer for the officers, Bryan Decker, said he was disappointed by the ruling, and he criticized state lawmakers for "abandoning the commitment to an educated police force.''

"The bad guy here is the state,'' said Decker, who represents a number of police unions in Massachusetts. Decker said the decision would cost the typical Boston patrol officer $7,000 a year.

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Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the city was pleased by the decision, and that the city would continue to fund its obligation.

Menino has pushed the state to finance its share of Quinn benefits, she said.

Under the law, police officers receive a 10 percent raise upon attaining an associate's degree in law enforcement, a 20 percent raise for a bachelor's degree, and a 25 percent raise for a master's or law degree.

This fiscal year, the state eliminated funding for the Quinn Bill altogether, and observers say there is little chance the money will soon return.

"It's part of an earlier era,'' said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. "Like so many reforms, it had its time.''


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.