METHUEN — An arbitrator has ruled that Mayor William Manzi violated a collective bargaining agreement by stopping the practice of allowing some top-ranking police officers from taking cruisers home.

In December, Manzi ordered more than 20 city employees, who take their city-owned cars home, to leave them behind at the end of the workday. In response to what he called "a worsening financial crisis," Manzi decided only the police chief, fire chief, Department of Public Works director and himself should keep city-owned cars after hours.

Three police captains and the head of the detective bureau lost their take-home cruisers, but only for two days. Once their union said it was going to file a grievance and take the case to arbitration, Manzi let them keep their cars while the case was pending.

The arbitrator's decision applies only to the Police Department.

"I understood fully that if I lost the arbitration, I would have then owed damages," Manzi said.

"Because the city's order removing the cruisers was issued outside of the collective bargaining process, and because these particular take-home vehicles enhance public safety, the union was compelled to bring this case," said attorney Gary Nolan, who represents the union.

Arbitrator Theodore O'Brien of Newburyport held a hearing May 6 and released his decision last Friday. He determined that Manzi violated a collective bargaining agreement with the union, but he said there was no remedy necessary since Manzi let the cops keep their cars pending the outcome of the case.

O'Brien held a one-day hearing and spent two days studying and preparing. He charged $1,000 per day, and the city and union are each paying half of the $3,000 tab, according to O'Brien's bill.

The city argued that take-home cars are a privilege granted at the mayor's discretion, not an employment benefit. The arbitrator, however, found that taking home a car is a benefit.

"It must be recognized that purchasing a personal vehicle, maintaining it and insuring it is an expensive proposition," O'Brien wrote in his decision. "Receiving a vehicle without cost can be a significant enhancement to an employee's compensation package."

The union took a one-year pay cut to help prevent layoffs in June 2009. Manzi and union President Frank Korn signed a memorandum at the time saying no other benefits or wages would be garnished during the life of that agreement.

O'Brien determined that letting the officers take vehicles home also benefits the city because it allows the officers to respond to incidents whenever they're needed.

The superior officers were the only people who grieved Manzi's order.

Manzi said allowing the four officers to take vehicles home will have no impact on the city budget. He said revoking take-home cars "was more symbolic than it was anything else."

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