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Seniority no protection in court layoffs

FRANKFORT — Just weeks before laying off 47 employees, state court officials changed policies regarding layoffs so those with the most seniority no longer were protected.

In orders issued Aug. 31 and Sept. 11, the Administrative Office of the Courts deleted provisions that were included in a 2005 order that said seniority would be considered in laying off employees.

Some employees who were laid off Sept. 15 had more than 20 years' experience in the courts or state government, court employees said.

Leigh Anne Hiatt, a spokeswoman for the court system, said the Administrative Office of the Courts and state Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton had to change the personnel policy because the previous policy did not cover the court's current fiscal problems.

In its decision to cut staff, the court system looked at what it was supposed to perform by statute. The office decided that various departments within the court system — including mediation and training — were not part of its mandate. Those positions and others were abolished, Hiatt said.

"We concluded that areas outside of the core functions, however positive and valuable, are subject to be eliminated," Hiatt said. "Therefore, when these positions were abolished as a cost-saving measure, it was not possible to order layoffs based on seniority."

The 47 layoffs were part of a larger cost-cutting measure at the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state's court system. Because of declining state revenues, the state's judicial branch faced a deficit of about $35 million. The job cuts resulted in a savings of $2.1 million, and additional cuts to supplies and reimbursements brought total reductions to $4.5 million.

Some of those laid off include six part-time court security personnel who helped provide security at some smaller courthouses and also checked courthouse security.

George A. Tomlinson, a court security inspector in Somerset, said he learned of his dismissal while in the hospital for colon cancer surgery.

"I was very much surprised," Tomlinson said. "I have a girl in college, and I will have to find something else to do."

Bourbon County Sheriff Mark Matthews, president of the Kentucky Sheriffs' Association, said the sheriffs, who oversee courthouse security, heard about the layoffs Friday.

Matthews said the court's officers provide additional security to smaller jurisdictions for death penalty and other high-profile cases.

"It's going to put a crunch on smaller counties," Matthews said. "I can't pull from my road deputies because I only have four."

Matthews said Bourbon County and other counties probably will have to ask other sheriff's departments to help provide courthouse security if state court officers aren't available.

Fayette Circuit Judge Jo Ann Wise, the chief family court judge, said the family court system lost a full-time AOC mediator who heard paternity cases. People who were having issues with custody and child support who did not have a lawyer were referred to the mediator at no charge, Wise said. She said the court system is hoping to have someone who could do that job on a volunteer basis so the service would continue. The AOC mediator has been with the Fayette County court system for five years.

AOC director Laurie Dudgeon said the AOC changed its personnel policy Sept. 11, just four days before the layoffs were announced, because the August personnel policy had a complicated process for rehiring into vacant positions that were not eliminated.

The revised Sept. 11 order allowed employees to apply for jobs in any county, not just the county they were in. Those with the most seniority were given first preference on jobs, Dudgeon said.

As of Sept. 17, nine of the 11 most senior employees who were laid off had accepted different positions in the AOC, Dudgeon said.

Many are concerned that the judicial branch's layoffs are a prelude for other job cuts in state government. Gov. Steve Beshear has warned that the next fiscal year will be tough as revenues continue to decline.