Judge refuses to stop layoffs of state troopers

Hartford Superior Court Judge James Graham refused Wednesday night to grant a request by the Connecticut State Police Union for a temporary injunction stopping layoffs of 56 troopers, including 34 who will lose their jobs at midnight.

And while a union spokesman pledged the bargaining unit would continue the legal challenge to the layoffs, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration will argue next month to dismiss on grounds that the basis for the challenge — a threshold state police force level set in statute — doesn’t apply.

“We were forced to take these steps. We believe the statute is very clear,” Sgt. Andrew Matthews, the union president, told reporters following the hour-long, closed-door hearing, which centered on Section 29-4 of the Connecticut General Statutes. That provision says the state “shall appoint and maintain a minimum of 1,248 sworn state police personnel.”

Connecticut currently has 1,120 troopers, and that total would fall to 1,064 after all of the layoffs.

“Twelve hundred and forty-eight is the floor, not the ceiling,” Matthews added.

But Andrew J. McDonald, the governor’s general counsel, said, “The statute at issue is not a guarantee of employment for any state troopers.”

Legislatures and governors for years have not appropriated sufficient funds to push trooper levels over the 1,248 mark, and McDonald said the administration would return to court on Sept. 15 to argue a motion to dismiss the union’s complaint.

“We don’t believe they have the legal foundation that would merit judicial intervention,” he said.

McDonald said the governor’s office is confident that it has properly observed all laws, but dismissed any talk of viewing Wednesday’s court result as a win for the governor, who repeatedly has said he didn’t want to order any layoffs. “This is not about victories,” McDonald added. “We have a very difficult job ahead of us.”

Malloy, who inherited a $3.7 billion deficit, asked the troopers and 14 other state employee unions to help close that gap with wage, benefit and other concessions worth a projected $700 million this fiscal year and $900 million in 2012-13. The governor and legislature also ordered more than $1.5 billion in tax hikes to balance the budget and reduce the likelihood that more concessions would be sought in the near future.

The concessions were ratified last week, but bargaining units representing the troopers and prison guard supervisors rejected one portion of the concession deal — a two-year wage freeze. But by retaining a 2.5 percent raise this year and the right to bargaining for a raise in 2012-13, these two units also forfeited the four-year guarantee against layoffs provided to the other units that accepted the pay freeze.

The administration, which served layoff notices to 56 troopers and 23 correction officer supervisors, announced Wednesday that 34 troopers would leave their jobs at midnight, while the remaining 22 would be off the job in about two weeks.

Matthews predicted that the layoffs, coupled with as many as 160 trooper retirements anticipated later this year, would dangerously weaken response times, particularly trooper requests for emergency back-up. “We’ll continue to fight for our membership,” he said..

The state police’s chief administrator, Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Reuben Bradford, rejected the assertion that public safety would be affected.

Though the troopers removed from their jobs involve a new class of recruits headed for highway patrol, those assignments still will be filled by reassigning more experienced staff, he said.

Those transfers will draw troopers from administrative, training, other specialized duties, and some investigative units, according to Col. Dan Stebbins. “Most of these are positions you don’t normally see on the highways,” he said.

But while they will reduce staffing in these areas, they will not force the closure of any of these units, Stebbins added.

Bradford said he would be challenged to meet Malloy’s directive Tuesday to all agency heads to curtail overtime, given the loss of 56 troopers. “We will have to backfill those positions,” the commissioner said. “This process cannot avoid overtime.”

Close to 300 troopers rallied outside of the Capitol on Monday, arguing that the public safety service they provide is crucial and should exempt their ranks from layoffs.

The union has noted repeatedly that as a gubernatorial candidate last fall, Malloy spoke strongly in support of the 1,248-trooper level despite knowing at the time that the next governor would inherit a deficit in excess of $3 billion.

A Malloy campaign position paper stated that “we must …ensure that Connecticut meets and exceeds statutorily required State Police staffing levels.”

“What’s the point of having a statutory mandate … if you’re not going to abide by the law?” Matthews added.

But Roy Occhiogrosso, a top campaign aide who now serves as his senior adviser, said governor’s position has been consistent, and that 1,248 troopers on the job is “a goal” that Malloy supports.

When asked about the union’s legal argument that the 1,248 trooper-level is a mandate, Occhiogrosso said “I’m not a lawyer, but I know the state has no money,” adding that the layoffs were understandable given that the overwhelming bulk of unionized state employees forfeited raises for two years to help eliminate the deficit.

Matthews also complained Wednesday that his reassignment from his duties as a lawyer in a special licensing and firearms unit to traffic duty of out Troop H in Hartford was punishment for his public criticism of the layoffs, which were ordered after the union refused to accept a two-year wage freeze.

“It’s ridiculous even to suggest that,” Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser responded, adding that layoffs in the state police force mean “there are gaps that have to be filled. There were six other sergeants that were transferred. It seems perfectly fair.”