Towns, police grapple with possible Quinn Bill cut
As legislators continue to debate funding a program that rewards police officers for getting their college degrees, unions and town officials are re-examining contracts to determine whether salaries will drop or budgets will take another hit.
"Our plans are like everybody else's," Milford Town Administrator Louis Celozzi said of Quinn Bill deliberations. "Hurry up and wait."
Introduced in the 1970s to develop better-educated police forces, the at-times criticized Quinn Bill bumps salaries 10 percent for an officer with an associate's degree, 20 percent for a bachelor's degree and 25 percent for a master's or law degree.
While half the money for the program comes from municipalities and half from the state in the form of a reimbursement, some union contracts require cities and towns to cover gaps in Beacon Hill support and some do not.
In Hopkinton, for example, a total loss of state support would mean the average officer with a bachelor's degree would lose $5,000 to $6,000 annually, but it would not further strain town finances. In Bellingham, the town would have to take $100,000 from elsewhere in the budget to cover the state's share.
"It's just another cut when you come right down to it," Town Administrator Denis Fraine said, referring to falling support in other state aid categories.
Initially eliminating the Quinn Bill in its budget proposal, the House of Representatives later restored half the funding, or $25 million.
The Senate, in turn, started its talks by cutting the program entirely but is now considering an amendment to provide some money, initially proposed at $10 million. The two budgets must be reconciled before being sent to the governor.
A survey of some cities and towns revealed that Ashland could be on the hook for $60,000, Milford for roughly $250,000 and Marlborough for at least that amount.
"Right now, everybody's on edge to see how this is going to end up," said Marlborough Detective Derek Johnson, president of that community's patrol officers union.
In other communities, including Framingham, Franklin, Hudson, Natick and Southborough, the money would not have to be covered by that town, but officers' pay would drop.
Given the uneven impact, Michael Widmer, director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, called for the Quinn Bill to be altered rather than eliminated by a Legislature looking for budget cuts.
"We need to have reform, not simply to have another sledgehammer here," he said.
Widmer said the Quinn Bill achieved its goal, but it should now see its salary bumps lowered to save money. Officers receive other forms of add-on compensation like traffic details, he said, and degrees are now the norm.
"Now it's an assumption that most police officers will have some kind of education," he said. "In an earlier era, that wasn't the case."
With the Quinn Bill's funding at stake, area officers and their superiors are defending the program.
"A better-educated person makes a better-educated police officer," said Lt. Robert Jusseaume of Marlborough, who holds a master's degree in criminal justice from Western New England College and is president of the command officers union.
In Hopkinton, Chief Thomas Irvin said it is misleading to think of the Quinn Bill money as bonus pay, since salaries have been adjusted during collective bargaining and are no higher than in neighboring states.
"It's become part of the way police are compensated here," Irvin said, adding that drops in salaries will also hurt pensions.
Given that some officers might not have degrees and the variance in union contracts, Irvin said eliminating the funding would also create disparities both within departments and between departments.
"If reform is needed, let's do it," he said. "But let's do it in a way that lets communities react to it."
Milford Chief Thomas O'Loughlin also warned of consequences, explaining that officers could move from those towns that don't pick up the state's share to those that do.
"I think you're going to see a lot of that shifting," he said.
While he supports the Quinn Bill, O'Loughlin said he also suspects the Legislature will phase it out, if not this year, then soon.
"I think that's clearly evident," he said.
Michael Morton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-4338.
The MetroWest Daily News