Editor’s Note: the following is a copy of an open letter sent to Belmont Town Meeting members on Friday, November 3 on behalf of the undersigned Town Meeting members. In it, we explain our intention to vote “NO” on a proposed Warrant Article (#8) that, if passed, would withdraw Belmont’s Police Department from the State’s Civil Service program.
(Since sending it, we have had additional Town Meeting Members express a desire to have their name listed as opponents of Article 8. Blogging Belmont will add those names to the list of signatories as we receive such requests.)
We, the undersigned, are your fellow Town Meeting members. Between us, we have logged decades serving on Town Meeting. And during our years of service, we have sometimes found ourselves on opposing sides of important Town business. Next week, however, we will stand together at Town Meeting in opposition to Article 8, the proposal to have Belmont’s Police Department exit the state’s Civil Service program. We hope you will join us in voting “NO.”
Our research into Article 8 convinces us that the arguments made by the Town Administrator, Police Chief and Select Board for exiting the Civil Service are not supported by the facts. Exiting under the current circumstances is the wrong move for Belmont and could have dire consequences for our Town. We’ve listed our main reasons for voting “NO” here, with further explanation provided below. We hope you’ll take the time to review the facts before you vote on this critical question for our Town.
Vote NO because:
- There is no data to support the Town’s stated reasons for leaving.
- Hiring is a challenge, but the problem is salaries, not the Civil Service.
- We can grow our applicant pool just by ditching local hiring restrictions.
- Unlike other communities that have left Civil Service, Belmont has no plan.
- The Town can’t say what it will cost Belmont taxpayers to replace Civil Service.
- Civil Service reforms are already in place and proposed legislation will bring more reforms.
There is no data to support the Town’s stated reasons for leaving.
First, despite assuring Town Meeting members on numerous occasions, and in writing, that leaving the Civil Service will result in Belmont having a larger and more diverse applicant pool, lower cost of hiring and fewer open positions on the Belmont PD, our Town’s leadership has provided no data from communities that have left that supports those claims.
That may be because no such data exists. In 2022, the Massachusetts’s Legislature’s Special Commission to Study and Examine the Civil Service Law reached out to communities that left Civil Service to determine “whether a municipality succeeded – or even attempted – [to meet] the stated goals of increasing the diversity of its workforce and maintaining a preference for veteran hires.”
Not a single community responded to that request. In response, the Commission ”drew a negative inference,” namely, that the towns in question did not have any data showing that the hiring changes they promised would happen after leaving the Civil Service actually came to pass. (See the Commission’s report, pages 18-19). Looking to our peer communities for answers reveals no clear pattern. Burlington’s police department left the Civil Service and has become more diverse. Lexington’s police department is less diverse having left than it was when it was still a part of the Civil Service.
Hiring is a challenge, but the problem is salaries, not the Civil Service
Our Police Chief and Select Board have told you that our difficulty hiring is because of the constraints put on us by the state’s Civil Service program. The implication is that by leaving the Civil Service, we will quickly be able to solve our staffing issues.
Facts don’t bear that out. While it is clear that our Police Department faces staffing challenges, those are not unique to Belmont. In fact, police staffing shortages are common across the Bay State, with no clear edge in staffing for communities that have exited Civil Service versus those that remain. What does tend to distinguish communities with fully staffed Police Departments from those with staffing shortages? Salaries. Towns that pay their rank-and-file officers more have an easier time hiring and retaining staff. Those that are lower on the pay scale have a harder time.
So where is Belmont? Of the 14 peer communities listed by the Town Administrator and Select Board, Belmont ranks 13 out of 14 in what it pays its officers. Those differences in compensation are considerable. An officer on Burlington’s force will make almost 6% more than a Belmont Police Department starting out and 17% more at the top of the Burlington pay scale. In Reading, an officer at the top of the pay scale will take home a whopping 24% more a year than an officer in Belmont at the top of our Police Department’s pay scale.
Our research found that three of the top five communities in Belmont’s “peer group” in terms of police compensation have fully staffed police departments: Burlington, Lexington and Reading. Other communities that are lower on the pay scale are having staffing trouble, just like Belmont is, regardless of whether they have left Civil Service or not.
We can grow our applicant pool just by ditching local hiring restrictions.
One of our biggest and most surprising discoveries is that Belmont can substantially grow our pool of potential Police Department hires merely by changing restrictive, local hiring policies that prevent qualified candidates from throwing their hat into the ring for open Belmont Police Department positions. These policies are at the Town’s discretion and unrelated to our participation in the Civil Service. Here are a few examples.
- Lifting the age limit on new hires. Currently, we prohibit candidates older than 31 (as of the day they take the Civil Service exam) from applying to entry level positions. We’re one of just 21 communities with that limitation. In contrast, 78 communities statewide (plus the MBTA police) have no age limit for new hires.
- Removing or expanding the proximity to Belmont requirement. Currently, Belmont Police department officers must live within a 20-mile radius of Town to work for the Belmont Police Department. With the agreement of the Belmont Police Department which favors such a change, we could expand that to 30 miles or more, removing a big obstacle to applying for open positions on the Belmont Police.
- Lifting or relaxing the local residency preference. There is a strong preference for candidates who live in Belmont, but very few Belmont residents apply for Belmont Police Department positions, given the high cost of living in town. Together with relaxing the proximity requirement, lifting or relaxing this requirement would make it easier to find and hire new candidates.
Embracing these simple changes to our restrictive hiring policies could eliminate Belmont’s current staffing problems. However, we have seen no evidence that the Town has explored these options to increase its pool of applicants.
Unlike other communities that have left Civil Service, Belmont has no plan.
Despite planning for our Police Department’s exit from the Civil Service for more than three years, our Town’s leadership has failed to provide any concrete plans for how that exit will proceed, nor has it won ― or even attempted to win ― the support and cooperation of the police officers themselves.
This “hostile exit” approach sets us apart from peer communities (like Wellesley and Lexington) that reached agreements with their public safety unions for replacing Civil Service protections and procedures before they asked to leave.
Leaving without a plan in place poses a huge risk to the rank and file of our Police Department as well as to the safety of our citizens: jettisoning critical procedures for candidate selection and hiring without anything in their place. Those procedures ensure that Belmont has a pool of qualified candidates to choose from ― and that those individuals who are hired are of the highest quality. In public safety departments that have left the Civil Service such as the Wellesley and Braintree fire departments, there are already documented incidents of nepotism hires, resulting in disciplinary actions.
Leaving without a plan will also remove the rights of individual Belmont Police officers to challenge discriminatory or unfair treatment at the hands of superiors or colleagues. As the recently resolved case of Brookline Firefighter Gerald Alston shows, for minority candidates Civil Service’s offer of a transparent and impartial court to hear claims of mistreatment and discrimination is an important check on systemic abuses. Those are protections Belmont Police officers of all backgrounds should retain.
Civil Service reforms are in the works
Making the “hostile exit” approach even more problematic is the fact that the Civil Service has already implemented reforms – such as increased staffing and greatly reduced exam fees- that will make it more accessible to applicants of modest means, while speeding up hiring and promotion practices. At the recent Belmont League of Women Voters Brown Bag event, Rob Quinan, the Massachusetts Civil Service General Counsel, stated that new legislation that addresses Belmont’s concerns as well as those of police and fire chiefs statewide has been submitted to the General Court and stands a good chance of passing this spring.
The Town can’t say how much leaving Civil Service will cost taxpayers.
“What will this vote cost Belmont taxpayers?” That is always one of the most important questions Town Meeting Members weigh in considering any article. In the case of Article 8, there is every reason to believe the costs to taxpayers of a YES vote will be considerable. And yet, our Town’s leadership has been deliberately vague in discussing these costs and has made no effort ― in more than three years ― to calculate them before bringing this question to us. That makes no sense.
As it stands, the Civil Service is an independent, state-run program funded by state money and fees. It provides Belmont with key services including managing exams to qualify applicants for hiring and promotion, as well as an appeals system to handle disputes over promotions, demotions and other disciplinary actions. The Civil Service is independent of any political interest and its decisions and hearings are matters of public record, with decades of case law to support them. For this, Belmont, the Town, pays nothing. These are the benefits of membership.
To replace Civil Service, Belmont will need to hire a private contractor to administer exams and private arbitrators to manage disputes. Those contractors will be answerable to the Town’s leadership, that is, the Town Administrator. Disputes with Belmont Police Department officers that require arbitration will likewise fall to the Town to pay for out of its coffers. Given the Town’s role in selecting the test provider, there may also be additional liability concerns for the Town connected to the actions and performance of its contractor.
Finally, there is the issue of negotiations with our Police Union to reach an agreement on exiting the Civil Service. In neighboring communities such as Lexington, those have come at the cost of significant financial commitments by the Town to rank and file officers in the form of boosted salaries and benefits in exchange for their cooperation.
So, is the cost to taxpayers of a “Yes” vote measured in the tens of thousands of dollars per year? In hundreds of thousands of dollars? Is it to be measured in millions of dollars? Again: there is no clear answer from our leadership, which suggests that to vote YES is a leap into the fiscal unknown, at a point in time in which our Town’s finances are already severely strained.
What To Do Now
We hope this email has left you better informed about the many (many) unanswered questions that lurk behind the Town’s multi-year push to exit Civil Service. We believe that a plan to leave the Civil Service at some point may be possible. However, as Town Meeting Members, we think it is important to make decisions based on facts, evidence and a clear idea of what consequences will follow from our decision as an elected body. In the case of Article 8, we do not believe this is possible. We urge you to join us in voting “NO” on Article 8.
- Paul Roberts, Precinct 8
- Judith Feinleib, Precinct 6
- Amy Cohen-Kirsch, Precinct 8
- Kathleen “Fitzie” Cowing, Precinct 8
- Michael Crowley, Precinct 8
- David DeMarco, Precinct 8
- Sharon DeMarco, Precinct 8
- Deanna Earle, Precinct 7
- Bonnie Friedman, Precinct 3
- Melissa Irion, Precinct 8
- Juliet Jenkins, Precinct 3
- Allison Lenk, Precinct 8
- Anne Mahon, Precinct 7
- Ira Morgenstern, Precinct 7
- Deran Muckjian, Precinct 2
- John Sullivan, Precinct 5
- Marie Warner, Precinct 6