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Battle for $$$; Quinn Bill funding at issue.

Byline: Shaun Sutner

WORCESTER - The state's gutting of education-based bonuses for police officers has left City Manager Michael V. O'Brien charting huge cuts in the city's share of the incentive program that will mean sizable pay cuts for more than three-quarters of the police force.

The city manager's adamant stance all but guarantees a bitter confrontation with the two powerful city police unions. The battle lines already are being drawn with the unions insisting Mr. O'Brien is jeopardizing public safety and the manager maintaining city taxpayers simply can't afford to underwrite a benefit that far exceeds what is commonly extended in the private sector.

"We now have no choice but to revisit the Quinn Bill benefit," Mr. O'Brien said of the

higher-education incentive program enacted by the Legislature in 1970. "It is no longer financially sustainable without the state as a 50-50 partner and no longer viable in the current form going forward."

The alternative to trimming the city's half-share of the Police Career Incentive Pay Program - commonly referred to as the Quinn Bill - is raising taxes or laying off as many as 50 police officers to preserve the program, which increases the salaries of officers with college degrees by as much as 25 percent, according to the manager, city councilors and state legislators..

Police officials respond the cut amounts to abandoning the hundreds of officers who complied with terms of the legislation, using their own time and money to obtain associate, bachelor's, law and master's degrees in exchange for salary increases of 10, 20 and 25 percent, respectively. About 77 percent of the 435-officer Worcester Police Department receives Quinn Bill bonuses.

Standing to lose the most are top officials with master's degrees such as Police Chief Gary J. Gemme, who received $40,594 in Quinn Bill pay on top of his $162,375 salary in fiscal 2008; Deputy Chief Steven Sargent, with a $28,827 bonus above his $115,309 base pay; Deputy Chief Mark S. Roche, $27,934 bonus on top of a $111,737 salary; Capt. Aaron R. Theodoss, $22,219 in addition to his $88,878 base; and Lt. Jane F. McGrath, with a $21,402 Quinn Bill bonus above her $85,607 salary.

However, officers would continue to have other sources of extra pay - such as private details, overtime and various stipends - that have helped make members of the force the highest paid group of city employees. Police officers comprised 46 of the city's top 50 wage earners in 2008.

Police are not the only municipal employees who receive extra pay for educational degrees, but the terms of the Quinn Bill are considerably more generous than incentives for teachers and firefighters, who get smaller, incremental increases for college degrees. In addition, Quinn Bill payments are considered part of a police officer's base salary and are paid out in proportion for holidays, overtime and pension calculation.

On the other hand, firefighters, who receive a few thousand dollars extra in fixed payments for college degrees, do not get the pay added to their base.

Teachers also get fixed rates for degrees. For example, a starting teacher with a master's degree gets about $5,000 more than one with a required bachelor's degree. A doctorate pays about $15,000 more.

A relatively junior police officer with a bachelor's degree gets an $11,856 Quinn Bill bonus in addition to a $59,283 base salary. With a master's, an officer with the same salary would get about a $15,000 bonus.

Chief Gemme and leaders of the police unions said they are determined to preserve the entire program, which they maintain benefits the entire community through better-educated and motivated officers.

The police unions, the city's only public employee unions that have not agreed to higher health insurance contributions since the recession started in late 2007, are expected to resist any Quinn Bill cuts and have several means available to help in their fight. Steps could include taking the city to court and picketing the Democratic State Convention to be held in Worcester next summer.

Chief Gemme noted officers expend "enormous" time and energy pursing degrees for which they fully expected to be rewarded.

"The time invested was time spent away from their family and friends," the chief, who declined to be interviewed, said in a prepared statement. "It also involved a loss of opportunity to earn additional compensation through overtime or details.

"Any attempt to withdraw funding that supports educated police officers could be detrimental to the long-term goals of institutionalizing community policing and preparing the next generation of police leaders," the chief added.

The Quinn Bill, he said, "is simply the cost of providing high-quality law enforcement services to the community."

Under one scenario that could play out during contract negotiations, new hires in the Police Department would receive no Quinn Bill benefits at all. Doing so, Mr. O'Brien said, would create a two-tier police pay structure he wants to avoid.

In another plan envisioned by the manager, newly hired officers might get educational bonuses that are half of what they are now, but existing payments would be cut and capped, perhaps at $15,000, which is about the current average.

Any reduction in Quinn Bill payments must be negotiated in collective bargaining because the Worcester police contract stipulates the city must

finance the difference if the state were ever to stop providing its share of Quinn Bill funding.

Until now, the state has financed about 50 percent of the program. The Quinn Bill incentive payments were implemented in Worcester in 1987, 17 years after the legislation was passed.

Last month, lawmakers approved a final budget that cut state funding for the Quinn Bill from $58 million to $10 million, and passed accompanying legislation phasing out the program entirely in the future.

In one indication the state share of the program is defunct, the

Department of Higher Education, which certifies officers' degrees for the bonus, has taken down its Web page listing officers and their benefits.

As of last year, the state had been providing $2.8 million toward the $5.6 million a year needed to finance the Worcester police officers' educational incentives.

When the governor's budget came out in January with $1.1 million cut from the city's Quinn Bill funding, Mr. O'Brien, the city manager, made up the difference in his budget. However, when lawmakers in July removed all but $400,000 earmarked for the city, it left the city with a new $1.3 million budget hole.

Without the state funding, that $1.3 million deficit will swell to $2.4 in the next and subsequent fiscal years, according to the manager.

Mr. O'Brien said the city now has few choices other than to reverse the City Council's 1987 vote to pay 50 percent of officers' Quinn Bill benefits, or to raise taxes - either in the form of the property tax levy or hiking restaurant meals and hotel room taxes under the state's new "local option" law.

"Neither of these options is palatable in the least, but unfortunately one or both may have to be pursued," Mr. O'Brien said. "Good faith negotiations that reach a resolution can get us beyond these alternatives to preserve jobs and services, to get us financially stable and stronger and to all of us looking forward to better times."

With the municipal election coming up, though, it is generally considered unlikely city councilors will have the stomach to raise taxes.

Some councilors have pointed to possible other revenue sources, such as resurrecting plans recently shot down by the state to extend the pension repayment schedule and to offer early retirements to employees, or tapping stimulus funds.

Others say there will be no option other than letting

city workers go or making steep cuts in services.

"I think there is very little tolerance for raising taxes," said District 4 Councilor Barbara G. Haller, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee and a supporter of the Quinn Bill. "I also think the state was irresponsible in its decision to dump this back in our municipal lap, but it's in our lap.

"If we can't get it done at the negotiating table, we're going to have to lay people off," said Ms. Haller, who represents one of the city's highest-crime areas. "It's a frightening and deeply terrifying thing."

In the meantime, police union officials, who already have sat down with Mr. O'Brien and his negotiators to work out a new contract, after the previous three-year pact ran out in June, are showing little appetite for compromise.

Edward T. Saucier, president of local 911 of the New England Police Benevolent Association, argued his union is sensitive to the current fiscal situation. He noted the local was the first city union to agree to increased health insurance premiums, a few years ago, along with other groundbreaking concessions.

"While our officers share with the rest of the community the increased burden of increased taxes, higher fees, higher prices and reduced services," he said, "is it unfair to carve out a special burden, a proportionately drastic pay cut just for police officers?

"To cut the officers' wages so greatly would set police officers back years and significantly impact their ability to make ends meet."

Gerald L. Flynn Jr., executive director of the NEPBA, noted police officers are not the only public employees with incentives for educational attainment, yet no one has urged cutting those given to others such as teachers.

Mr. Flynn also urged city officials to look at boosting hotel and restaurant taxes to raise the money to keep the Quinn Bill program whole.

"Quite frankly, we're not going to balance the budget off the backs of police officers," Mr. Flynn said. "We all understand that the financial picture is bleak, but you can't turn around and blame one entity, the Quinn Bill, for the entire financial problem."

Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at ssutner@telegram.com.

NAME: WORCESTER POLICE DEPARTMENT

ART: PHOTOS; CHARTS

CUTLINE: (PHOTOS) Worcester Police Chief Gary J. Gemme and City Manager Michael V. O'Brien. (CHART 1) Summary of police education stipend by ranks (CHART 2) Quinn Bill recipients (CHART 3) Quinn bill costs

PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G FILE PHOTOS (CHARTS) T&G Staff
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 9, 2009
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