Police unions and individual officers are trying hard to save what’s left of the 40-year-old Quinn Bill with mixed success. Budget woes forced lawmakers to cut what was once a $50 million state contribution to $10 million in fiscal 2010 and $5 million this year.

The law, more formally called the Police Career Incentive Pay Program, rewards police with salary increases of 10 percent to 25 percent for attaining college degrees ranging from associates to masters. The state was contributing 50 percent of each community’s costs but, now that Beacon Hill is bailing on its half, some police unions are trying to hold their cities and towns responsible for the full amount.

This summer, unions in Fairhaven and Rutland came up short in legal actions against municipal officials in their communities. In Medford, however, an arbitrator sided with the union’s contention that the city could not cut officer’s pay even though the state pulled out.

The difference in outcomes boils down to what’s in the union’s contract language, with some collective bargaining agreements specifically stating that the community only has to pay its share while other contracts are either silent or contain ambiguous language about the agreement adopting the terms of the Quinn Bill.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachu­setts Municipal Association, says lawmakers’ failure to design alternative “rules of governance, [left] cities and towns and police unions to their own devices to try and figure out how to sort this out.”

Bryan Decker, the attorney for the Massachusetts Co­­ali­tion of Police, the state’s largest law enforcement union, views the Quinn Bill as a wage statute. He says communities that have adopted the measure have effectively incorporated the Quinn provisions into the salaries of their police officers, and those salaries cannot be cut unilaterally, no matter what the local contract says.

Decker represents officers in Mashpee, Wrentham, and Boston who are bypassing arbitration and heading right to court. Falmouth and Scituate are also facing lawsuits.

“The [lawsuits are] saying that the contract can’t trump the statute and, therefore, that provision of the contract is simply not valid,” says Decker, an attorney for the Boston firm Sandulli Grace, PC.  

Municipal officials say the disputes over Quinn benefits are disrupting their staffs. Veteran police officers in towns that can’t afford to pay the benefit are moving to municipalities that can, and communities that are cutting benefits are having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates for openings.