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On Transparency and Finance…#Quinning…?

UPDATED 2/12/13 2:38 PM: For grammar & accuracy and to include responses from the mayor’s office & councilors.  NOTE: The original time stamp of this post was 2/11/2013 6:00 PM, but has been altered to bump this story on WMassP&I’s homepage.

The Springfield City Council in 2012 (WMassP&I)

The Springfield City Council in 2012 (WMassP&I)

During the budget debate last year at the Springfield City Council, very little animated councilors to deviate from the mayor’s recommendation.  Indeed, on the spending side, they did nothing to deviate from what Domenic Sarno requested.  However, motivated by a recent court decision, the Council questioned, but also highlighted one item in the budget.

Councilors were asked at the budget meeting to approve a transfer from the city’s reserves—separate from another transfer needed to balance the budget—to pay for the state’s share of the Police Career Incentive Program, better known as the Quinn Bill.  The Quinn Bill provides bonuses to police officers who receive qualifying academic degrees.  The city’s Human Resources/Labor Relations Director, William Mahoney described the measure as a “good faith” gesture toward the police department as negotiations for a new contract continues.  The contract with police terminated June 30 and negotiations remain ongoing.

The measure moved money into a special fund, not the police budget.  It did not pass in June, but did later in August.  Transfers of this kind require at least nine votes to pass.

Councilors had expressed skepticism about the transfer because most were under the impression that the city was not obligated to pay the state’s share any longer.  They would end up being mistaken.  For several years now, cities and towns in Massachusetts have been stuck with the whole cost of the Quinn Bill as the commonwealth stopped fully appropriating its share of the program.

The commonwealth cannot be compelled to fund its share because Massachusetts is not a party to police contracts.  It merely creates a funding mechanism for municipalities subject to appropriation by the Legislature.  That mechanism is triggered by adoption of the Quinn Bill statute General Laws Chapter 41, Section 108L.  Springfield adopted the section August 13, 1993.

The John Adams Courthouse, Boston. Home of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (via wikipedia)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last April that communities were not obligated to pay the state’s unfunded share any longer.  The case came about after Boston’s Police union sued the city for not providing the full promised Quinn Bill benefits, but only the city’s share plus the paltry fraction of the state’s share that was actually appropriated by the legislature.  Boston paid the amount it did pursuant to its contract, which the union alleged ran afoul of Quinn Bill‘s Section 108L.  The Court ruled in Boston’s favor saying that communities were not, under 108L at least, obligated to make up what the commonwealth failed to appropriate.

Springfield Councilors’ skepticism on the transfer in June ranged from opposing any transfer of funding until a new contract was approved to demands that funding the commonwealth’s share of Quinn Bill be on the table during contract negotiations.  Councilors also sought assurances that the April court decision would have a role in the negotiations.  Mahoney intimated that this was the point of the transfer and said nothing to counter councilors’ understanding of the court decision’s impact on the city budget.

The amount in question was $1.8 million, the approximate amount of the commonwealth’s share of the Quinn Bill funds.  At an August 20 Finance Committee hearing city officials explained to councilors present that the amount was an estimate.  The minutes of the meeting show that finance officials assured councilors that funds not needed to cover the state Quinn Bill share would return to the city’s reserves.

Springfield Police Patch (via masslive)

The measure was approved by the councilors on the committee who were present. However, at that meeting some say there was a sense the tone of the measure’s significance had begun to turn at that meeting.

That became a reality on the November 19 Council meeting which a measure appeared to transfer the Quinn Bill money, currently sitting in a special account, to the Police budget.  The city’s budget director, LeeAnn Pasquini said that night the Quinn money had already been paid to officers.  The measure needed nine votes.  Only nine councilors were present and Ward 7 Councilor Tim Allen & Ward 2 Councilor Mike Fenton voted no, killing it at that meeting.

The measure was on Monday’s agenda, but Fenton delayed its consideration by objecting to a request to waive a Council procedure that requires two readings of financial orders before the Council may act on it.  It probably has the votes to pass, however.  At-large Councilor Kateri Walsh and Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna, who were absent at the November meeting, are likely yeses bringing the total votes to nine.  Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards and Ward 4 Councilor E. Henry Twiggs, also absent, are less certain votes.

The city’s contract with police, which dictates the terms of the Quinn Bill funding, continues in force while negotiations continue.  HR Director Mahoney told the Council this in November and confirmed it in emails to WMassP&I.  Under the terms of that contract, disbursement of Quinn Bill money is mandated in November.

Lee Erdman (WMassP&I)

LeeAnn Pasquini (far right) with Mayor Domenic Sarno and former CAFO Lee Erdmann (WMassP&I)

Pasquini, the budget director, told WMassP&I in emails that such payments prior to Council approval are permitted under accounting rules.  However, she continued that a failure to authorize the transfer would leave the police budget unbalanced for historical budgeting purposes.  Pasquini added that the commonwealth share has been unfunded for several years (and was the impetus for Boston’s lawsuit).

The Mayor’s office declined to comment directly on this matter and referred WMassP&I to Paquini’s comments.

The Quinn Bill’s accounting or contractual language aside, questions remain regarding what the Council was told.  Councilors were left with the impression that Springfield was no longer obligated to pay the state’s share.  That impression was not accurate.

Mahoney explained that the reason why Springfield is not free from its Quinn obligations after the court ruling is because its contract is written differently than Boston’s.  Indeed, Boston’s police contract explicitly said Boston would convey the commonwealth’s share, or whatever the Legislature appropriated to officers.

The language of the expired Springfield police contract, which remains in force, seems ambiguous.  In Section 24.03, the contract spells out educational incentives and merely points to the Quinn Bill section, 108L.  The contract says, “pursuant to the General Laws…the Employer (that is Springfield) shall pay police career incentive base salary to those unit employees certified eligible…”  In light of the Supreme Judicial Court‘s ruling on communities obligations, what does that mean in terms of Springfield’s contract?  Other communities had more explicit contracts that left them unaided by the court ruling.

William Mahoney (via Still of Public Access City Council meeting recording)

William Mahoney (via Still of Public Access City Council meeting recording)

Mahoney told the Council in November that the only way that Springfield could not pay the state share would be to declare contract negotiations at an impasse or agree to a new contract.  Impasse is a more technical definition that carries risks for both sides.  Since no new contract was agreed to, the November payments had to go on as scheduled.

The city, could, however, in light of the Boston court ruling, unilaterally act, but that would almost certainly trigger a grievance and bring the matter before an arbitrator.  Mahoney confirmed that the question of whether or not the Boston ruling affects Springfield’s obligations under the contract has not been arbitrated.

Regardless of the status of contract negotiations back in June, Mahoney and financial officials did not, at a minimum, sufficiently tamp down on the Council’s expectations in light of the court ruling.  Even if city negotiators thought a contract was feasible before Quinn payments’ due date in November, the incentive of police negotiators to drag negotiations past November would still be present.

Councilor Michael Fenton said he voted no on the process, not the substance of the issue (WMassP&I)

Councilor Mike Fenton said he voted no on the process, not the substance of the issue (WMassP&I)

Councilors Allen and Fenton said that the Council should have been more fully informed of the legal disposition of the Quinn money.  Allen went as far to say he would have no problem had Mahoney and finance officials been more clear from the start.  “The idea was that the money would not be used until they came back to us,” Allen said, which did not happen.  Both councilors also said they have no problem with the police or the city’s obligations under law and contract.  To that point, the police are unlikely to care what the outcome of this internal city matter is as officers have already been paid.

Another open question relates to how finance officials dealt with the issue.  WMassP&I could not confirm the contours of municipal accounting practices by posting time, but transfers of this kind are valid and common.  Still, it does have the potential to jeopardize one of the Council’s key powers: approving labor contracts.

Mayor Domenic Sarno is the city's bargaining authority under Massachusetts law (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno is the city’s bargaining authority under Massachusetts law (WMassP&I)

Under Massachusetts collective bargaining laws, city employees bargain with the executive, that is Mayor Sarno in Springfield’s case.  The Council has no role unless there is an appropriation like wages or benefits in the contract.  As a practical matter, virtually every contract has these therefore the Council will always have a say.  Consequently, the Council can kill a labor contract, including, in some cases, one imposed by an arbitrator.

Sarno’s labor negotiators and finance officials might argue that it does not matter whether the Council approved the measure one way or another except for accounting purposes.  But, by not fully clarifying the city’s obligations and legal disposition, city officials, and not the Council, were obligating the city to something councilors believed the city was not so committed.

“The proper thing, in my mind, would have been to come back to us and say we need to move, we need to spend this money,” Allen said.  “And that was not done until after the fact.”