- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina State Highway Patrol troopers are facing severe financial hardships because the state has broken its promise to give them pay raises, according to a lawsuit filed Monday.

As an inducement to join the Highway Patrol, candidates were promised “graduated or step pay raises” once they finished training, but that hasn’t happened, the lawsuit says.

The pay raises were “contractual, and were not discretionary,” it says. “Since 2009, the state of North Carolina has failed to honor its promises to plaintiffs and has failed to grant them the pay raises to which they are entitled,” the lawsuit says.

The increases were supposed to come in four steps between the ranks of senior trooper and master trooper, said David Wijewickrama, (WEE’-juh-wik-ram-uh) an attorney who filed the lawsuit. At each step between those ranks, the officer would receive a 5 percent raise. The first 5 percent increase would kick in after two years, he said.

Beginning troopers makes about $34,000 a year, while a master trooper’s pays starts at about $57,000, he said.

But troopers have seen their wages largely frozen as North Carolina has struggled to balance its budget.

“Our clients were promised the step raises when they were recruited, promised these step raises when they began their training, promised these step raises when they were sworn. But since then, they have been given what many feel are empty, hollow, disingenuous excuses and rhetoric,” Wijewickrama said.

He said the lawsuit seeks back pay for the troopers who have been with the agency since 2009. He said the state could owe them $10 million.

“These raises, for many troopers, would alleviate their strife, hardship and poverty,” he said, adding that some troopers are on public assistance and facing foreclosure.

Along with the state, Frank Perry, secretary of the Public Safety Department, and Janet Cowell, state treasurer, have been named as defendants.

Perry said in an email that it was inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.

“It is, however, important to know that I am keenly aware of the state’s budget situation and the inability to provide raises to all state employees, which includes our public safety officers and, more specifically, our state troopers. That is why I have been working closely with the governor, the Office of State Human Resources and the General Assembly to ensure that eligible troopers get raises from the Salary Adjustment Fund,” he said.

Treasury Department spokesman Schorr Johnson said his agency has no independent authority to determine the pay of any state employees, other than those employed by his department.

“Our legal counsel will need to review the complaint and determine a proper response, so we cannot comment further at this time,” he said in an email.

So far, nearly 40 state troopers are named as plaintiffs in the breach of contract lawsuit. But Wijewickrama said attorneys hope to contact all 520 troopers affected by the lawsuit within the next 90 days.

Wijewickrama said they’re suing now, before the General Assembly returns to session in May. He said they’re afraid conservative GOP lawmakers might try to ban this type of lawsuit.

He also said lawmakers and government officials have put other interests ahead of troopers, who risk their lives every day.

“It’s inexcusable, appalling and disgusting that government staffs are given pay raises, and tax dollars are used to repay political favors before paying a promised wage to the men and women who have been shot, cut, beaten and killed in the name of keeping our homes and communities safe,” he said.

___

Follow Mitch Weiss on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mitchsweiss