Concerned by persistent difficulties in recruiting and hiring new officers, town officials will ask voters at the Nov. 15 special town meeting for permission to remove Foxboro police from the state Civil Service merit system.
The measure, which would still require approval by the state Legislative after passing muster at next month’s special session, has the support of the local police union as well as the board of selectmen.
Emerging from a closed-door session, selectmen on Tuesday night unanimously endorsed an agreement negotiated with the local police union which grants officers scaled salary increases for officers who complete college degrees.
In addition, union members with rights under the Civil Service system would remain grandfathered, according to Town Manager William Keegan.
In return, members of Foxboro Police Local #379 voted overwhelming to support the town’s effort to remove the department from Civil Service -- the merit system which outlines how some state and municipal employees are hired and promoted.
The primary purpose of Civil Service, adopted by Foxboro in 1931, was to protect the hiring process from patronage and political interference. Over the years, many safeguards once guaranteed by Civil Service are now covered by collective bargaining and/or the arbitration process.
Currently, less than half of the Bay State’s 351 cities and towns remain in the Civil Service system.
Keegan said the proposed agreement negotiated with Local #379 would benefit both the town and union members. More specifically, he suggested that jettisoning Civil Service would remove restrictions on the hiring process and allow Foxboro to be more competitive in recruiting.
“As people have been watching in the news, it’s becoming more and more difficult to attract talent to police departments,” he said. “It is a very difficult job and there is a lot of things placed upon the officers themselves. As a result, it becomes more difficult for us to attract good candidates for these roles.”
As part of the agreement negotiated on behalf of union members, the town pledges to fully fund the so-called “Quinn Bill,” providing qualified officers with percentage increases to their base pay depending on the degree earned -- 10 percent for an associate’s degree, 20 percent for a bachelor’s degree and 25 percent for a master’s or law degree.
Enacted in 1970, the educational incentive program originally had been funded jointly by the state and local communities, Keegan said. But in 2009, Gov. Deval Patrick discontinued the state’s share, leaving many cities and towns to scale back on benefits through collective bargaining.
Characterizing the agreement as “a great tradeoff that benefits both parties,” Keegan said eliminating Civil Service would give the town a competitive edge in recruiting and retaining law enforcement talent.
Earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, Police Chief Michael Grace told selectmen that chronic staffing shortages in the police department have become especially challenging over the past year as openings created by injuries, transfers or retirements have gone unfilled.
Grace said a statewide shortage of law enforcement candidates has been exacerbated by several factors, including recent police reform efforts and a backlog of openings at training academies, both of which contribute to increased competition among agencies for available personnel.
“I just can’t get people here,” Grace said of his own recruiting efforts. “The Civil Service list expired in the spring.”
He added that jettisoning Civil Service will allow the police department to develop testing that identifies candidates who want to work in Foxboro and remain over the long term.
Other town meeting articles
In addition to endorsing the Civil Service proposal, selectmen also voted unanimously to approve an amended special town meeting warrant.
According to Keegan, of the 17 articles originally submitted for inclusion on the November warrant, just 13 remain.
Most notably, he said, the Kraft Group has withdrawn a proposal asking voters to authorize an unusual half-acre land swap in order to facilitate a substantial building expansion at Gillette Stadium. He did not provide an explanation for the sudden about-face.
Also, a pair of street acceptance articles have been removed from the Nov. 15 warrant.
Six of the remaining measures involve proposed amendments to the town’s zoning bylaws including outdoor seating at local restaurants, accessory apartments, provisions for site plan review waivers, and refining the definitions of building height, habitable floor area and what constitutes a brewpub.
The planning board is scheduled to convene public hearings on each of these proposed measures at town hall Thursday, Oct. 14.
Following a lengthy discussion, selectmen agreed to take formal votes on all 13 warrant articles at their next meeting. In the past, board members have typically weighed in on selected initiatives, but not all.
“I think the perception is that if we’re voting on any of the articles, why wouldn’t we be making a recommendation on all of them?” Selectwoman Stephanie McGowan asked rhetorically. “I don’t care which way we do it, I just think we should be consistent.”
Chairwoman Leah Gibson agreed.
“It sounds like we should just take positions on everything,” she said. “Let’s just do them all.”
In a related matter, selectmen were scheduled to host the town’s annual “financial summit” this Wednesday (Oct. 13)