Budget struggles in South Jersey town mean more police layoffs

With its serene lakes and quaint downtown, Medford, New Jersey isn’t exactly a hot bed of crime.

In fact, recent FBI data estimates that you are 92 percent less likely to be the victim of crime in Medford Township than you would be in the rest of the Garden State.

But, if only infinitesimally, that likelihood may soon increase.

Facing a nearly $6 million budget deficit, township officials are making cuts everywhere.

And the police department is at the top of the list.

They’ll lose five officers in the next five weeks; four will be laid off Thursday and another position has been eliminated by not replacing a soon-to-be-retiree.

The four laid-off officers are expected to regain jobs in neighboring townships.

Township Manager Chris Schultz, who designed the current budget, said police cuts are undesirable, but necessary after years of irresponsible spending in the municipality.

“It was the last place I went to, but I did go to it because I had an obligation to present a balanced budget to council,” said Schultz, a native of nearby Medford Lakes who started as manager last spring.

Since 2009, Medford’s 22,000 residents have seen their police force dwindle from 49 to 28 officers.

How many is enough?

Officials estimate the standard police ratio for the overall region to be one officer per 500 residents, but exact ratios change depend on the area and the amount of calls a police district receives.

With almost 23,000 residents and soon only 28 cops, Medford will have roughly one officer per 800 residents.

Medford Police Chief Richard Meder says his force could ideally serve the community with somewhere between 35 to 40 officers. Having only 28 will definitely affect the township’s residents, he said.

“Do I think they’re going to be receiving the same police service that they received a year ago? Six months ago? Two years ago?” said Meder. “No, I think the police service is certainly going to be cut and I think the overall aspect of public safety is going to be negatively impacted.”

A township in crisis

Cuts in Medford aren’t limited to the police department.

According to Schultz, the economic woes of his town are pervasive and will impact services across the board. Municipal garbage collection is set to end, while parks and recreation are to be cut.

Schultz says the eradication of these services is the result of two coinciding factors: out-of-control spending and a refusal to raise taxes.

Schultz estimates that Medford’s budget ballooned from $13.8 million to $22.5 million from 2001 to 2010. During that time and in the face of a recession, other towns cut back. Medford lacked “internal discipline,” Schultz said, and kept spending well beyond the means of incoming revenue.

Even with the cuts he’s already proposed, Schultz said he still hasn’t balanced the budget.

“I’m still trying to figure out where we can do that without cutting any more police officers,” he said Tuesday.

To achieve balance, Schultz said he needs to find a way to generate or cut an additional $600,000.

Referendum fails

Last spring, Medford Township citizens were presented with a ballot measure to increase property taxes in an effort to alleviate budget shortfalls. City officials wanted permission to bypass the state’s 2 percent cap on tax increases.

The initiative was rejected soundly, five-to-one.

Whether a similar measure will appear on the ballot this year will be up to the five-member township council committee.

At least one council member favors giving the tax-increase a redo: newly elected Republican Mayor James Pace.

And he knows that the measure will get at least one more vote this time —- his.

“I was not prepared last year to vote for that referendum simply because, at that point, I did not have enough information in front of me that said that the people in charge [also Republicans] were going to spend my tax dollars wisely,” said Pace.

This year though, after a sea change in Medford politics swept both him, Schultz and others into office, Pace says the township is in much better hands.

Whether residents agree, at least for the foreseeable future, they’ll be paying.

Not in dollars necessarily, but in the cost of coping — with disposal of their trash, with a lack of public parks, and with the knowledge that fewer officers are patrolling their streets.

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