STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - Keith Oler said he never thought that, after 21 years as a police officer, he would find himself searching for a job again.
Oler, 41, is one of five Stafford Township police officers facing layoffs March 31.
"Being a police officer is all I've done. This has shown me that there is no such thing as job security," Oler said Friday afternoon.
Stafford Township joined the ranks this week of southern New Jersey municipalities that are using layoffs to close budget gaps. In Galloway Township, 14 police officers were put on paid leave in advance of being laid off - although a tentative agreement reached Thursday could prevent that - while in Egg Harbor Township, 17 workers were told they may lose their jobs. Wildwood city officials are notifying 40 employees - nearly 20 percent of their work force - that their jobs may be lost.
Oler, a father of three, worked as a police officer in Ship Bottom before joining the Stafford department.
His wife is a stay-at-home mother. Oler said unemployment payments will be only about $2,000 per month.
He is already looking for work at other municipal departments, but the only offer so far has been a summer job.
"I got this from them, ‘We'd love to help you, but ...' On the island, in Beach Haven, they said I could work as a special officer for $11 an hour," he said.
Oler's current annual salary in Stafford Township is $75,900.
Stafford Township Administrator James Moran said the layoffs will save $600,000.
"I know right now we are $2 million behind the curve," Moran said.
The township of 26,282 residents has 57 police officers. Layoffs would reduce the force to 52. According to the 2008 Uniform Crime Report, an average of 22 crimes are committed per 1,000 residents.
The township has agreed to extend the five officers' health benefits to July, but Patrolwoman Marisa Fence is five months pregnant, her baby due July 24. The four other officers being laid off are willing to forfeit their health benefits so Fence has coverage for herself and the baby.
Patrolman Chris Smith, 28, like Oler, left a position in the Barnegat Township Police Department two years ago after five years with the department. Smith said he came to work in Stafford Township because of its reputation as being the best.
He is married with two young children.
He said he will have to pull his 2-year-old son out of a paid preschool because he will longer be able to afford to send him.
"I left a great department where I had a great job, and I came here thinking I was going to have a secure job. Like a lot of other people in this situation, it's affecting my home life. It's not easy to sleep at night knowing you might not be able to support your family," said Smith, whose salary is $75,900.
Patrolman Ed Kunder, 25, has been an officer in the department for three years. His salary is $51,192. He was married in July and is building his home with the help of his father-in-law. He said he also is paying off college loans after receiving a bachelor's degree in history from Rowan University.
"I thought I had a solid job. As far as the loans and stuff go for the house, I could be shaky. The hardest part for me about this was going home and telling my wife," Kunder said.
Fence, 26, came in first overall when she tested for the Stafford Township Police Department. In the physical test, Fence, whose salary is $55,292, tested alongside male officers and came in second. Now, two years after she started her career, she is pregnant and will be laid off next month.
Fence, like many of the other officers facing layoffs, is married with offspring. She has two stepchildren. Her husband is self-employed and does not have health benefits of his own.
"This has been stressful. It's hard to sleep at night because you have so much on your mind. It's hard to eat. And I can't go and take a physical test for another department because I'm pregnant," she said.
Twenty-seven-year-old Mark Flanagan is in his third year as a police officer in Stafford Township and is paid $42,096 annually. He said he and his girlfriend were planning to buy a home.
"But with me being laid off now, buying a house has to be put on hold for I don't know how long," Flanagan said.
Flanagan will turn 28 on March 31, the day he and the other four officers will be laid off.
"Not only is it affecting me, it's affecting the 52 other officers in the department. Their response time might go down, and it's going to be more dangerous for them with less officers. This is a brotherhood - we're all brothers and sisters," he said.
Moran said the township is allowing the five officers to take the last two weeks as administrative leave before they are laid off.
"This is to help them get their lives and affairs in order," Moran said.
The five officers, however, have rejected the offer.
"The guys on the road will already be short. We're going to work until our last day. If I stayed home those two weeks and one of the other guys got hurt, I wouldn't be able to live with myself," Smith said.
"The guys on the road will be stressed out because they're going to have a higher call volume," Kunder said.
Moran said Thursday there are four senior officers with intentions to retire this year. He said several have filed retirement papers with the Police and Fire Retirement System.
"But I have no commitment. They could still pull their papers. Between the four officers retiring, there could be enough dollars to bring all five officers back," he said.
Stafford Township Policemen's Benevolent Association 297 President Joe Mrasik and Police Chief Thomas Conroy said they are expecting a large crowd of local police officers and residents to come to the Township Council meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
"I've been dealing with this since they were told, and they've been more than professional. They've taken this well. I'm proud of these guys. We're going to fight for them," Mrasik said.
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