Police officers are used to people coming to them for help. But now, municipalities seem to be asking for more than protection. Towns faced with a bad economy and mandated budget caps are looking at public safety jobs to trim spending.

“I do believe the officers are being unjustly targeted,” said Egg Harbor Township Detective Ray Theriault, president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Mainland Local 77, which works with 12 Atlantic County departments. As the biggest part of most municipal budgets, “we’re the easiest target, so that’s who they’re coming to first.”

Officers from Egg Harbor and Galloway townships recently took pay cuts and made other concessions to save a total of 24 jobs, although Galloway will still lose two officers. In Pleasantville, seven members of the 52-officer department were given warnings that they could lose their jobs. The police chief there, Duane Comeaux, is optimistic that things will work out. Atlantic City is proposing reducing its force by as many as 20 officers. Meanwhile, Stafford Township, Ocean County, has five officers — or nearly 9 percent of its force — facing layoffs.

Robert Coulton, president of the state Association of Chiefs of Police, said cuts are occurring across New Jersey. “In 28 years (in law enforcement), this is the hardest time I’ve ever seen. It’s not just one geographical location. If the economy continues (as it is), I don’t know when it’s going to stop.”

Last month, seven Newark Police Department positions were eliminated to help the city balance its budget, which at one time had a $2.7 million deficit. In Burlington County, Lumberton officials said they will discuss concessions in an attempt to avoid layoffs.

The trend to go to public safety employees for budget bailouts has appeared in just the past couple of years, Theriault said, and it has been costly.

Officers in Galloway Township have given up almost $1.4 million in salaries, overtime and other concessions in 2009 and 2010; Egg Harbor Township officers conceded about $1.1 million during the same period, he estimated.

But even the departments that seem to have saved jobs might be headed back to the bargaining table, Theriault said. Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address set for Tuesday could bring more bad financial news for towns.

“Any town that we have a deal in, they could come back to us and say, ‘We need more,’” Theriault said. “Then we’re back at it again.”

Pleasantville Business Administrator Marvin Hopkins said the spirit of cooperation has helped in trying to trim the budget in the best way possible, and he is hopeful that the seven officers can keep their jobs. Each department in the city cut 15 percent from its budget, but more is still needed, he said.

Atlantic County’s large paid fire departments are also seeing cuts. Eight Pleasantville firefighters have received layoff notices. Major cuts have been proposed for fire department salaries in Atlantic City, although officials said no notices have come yet. Many other towns have volunteer or mostly volunteer fire departments, but police are still a large expense nearly everywhere.

A fifth of the budget

A sampling of municipalities throughout the region showed that about 20 percent of the average municipal budget is spent on police. Barnegat Township in Ocean County spent about 27 percent of its 2009 budget on police salaries and expenses. Ocean City in Cape May County was at the low end, at 12 percent.

“I think that the towns have to prioritize what’s important to them,” Theriault said. “Granted, public safety is probably one of the single-biggest line items on any budget, but I don’t think you can put a price on public safety.”

“I believe that people want to be safe in their community,” said Merceda Gooding, an Atlantic City advocate. “I see the cops riding around in the area and I feel safe.”

Theriault said police officers understand the poor economy and that residents are upset about taxes. But he said municipal taxes make up less than 10 percent of a tax bill. He believes the anger is focused in the wrong place.

State and federal spending are the real culprits, he said.

Residents may object

When residents indicate they’re willing to pay, officials seem to listen.

In Longport, talk of police reductions in the past have led to public outcry. Uniform Crime Report figures show that in 2008, the town of slightly more than 1,000 residents had the lowest crime rates in Atlantic County and the highest police-to-resident ratio. Still, this year the town is considering merging its dispatch system with neighboring Margate.

On Monday, residents in Buena Borough, Atlantic County, came out to a borough meeting after 16 police department employees — including three full-time and three part-time officers — received notices that their jobs were in jeopardy. Leaders said the jobs were not yet lost.

Some people question the wisdom of cutting police jobs in a poor economy.

“I would like to think that would be the last place you would want to cut,” said Pleasantville resident Simone, who is a regular fixture at City Council meetings and goes by one name.

She worries that, as the economy worsens, crime will only increase.

“You have people needing to feed their families,” she said.

“We have a lot of crime in the streets,” said Gooding, who recently had her two cars firebombed. “How can you cut police at this time?”

She believes politics plays too much of a role in how police matters are handled. Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford recently kicked Police Chief John Mooney III out of his office to make way for a new public safety director. The administration also plans to demote several high-ranking officers and eliminate the chief’s position, bumping Mooney down to deputy chief.

While the cuts to police in Atlantic City have come as mandates, Fire Chief Dennis Brooks indicated he was given the opportunity to trim expenses in his department in an attempt to save jobs.

‘Animosity shouldn’t play a role’

Politics and personal animosity shouldn’t play a role in decisions about public safety jobs, said Atlantic City resident Gooding.

“If they could be able to sit down and talk, I believe they could come to a common solution,” she said.

Gooding said many people in the community like having a strong police presence.

And Coulton, who heads the police chiefs association, said cutting staff can mean losing the personal service that helps community relations.

“Let’s face it, I can run my police department with 80 officers or 65 officers,” said the Ewing Township police chief. “But the services will not be the same with a 65-officer department that they would be with 80.”

“He’s absolutely right,” Atlantic City’s new public safety director, Christine Petersen, said of Coulton’s comments.

She said it’s the job of the municipality to trim “in a considerate way.”

“In any organization, it’s going to be difficult to make cuts,” Petersen said. “We all have to shoulder the burden.”

She said she feels that her position — working as an administrator but with a law enforcement background — can work as an asset.

“There’s someone else to fight for those cuts, or against those cuts,” she said. “I’m going to advocate as best I can.”

But that could mean certain programs suffer. Coulton theorized anything from removing school resource officers to having automated handling of nonemergency calls.

“The specifics of what each individual department will do depends on how that chief chooses to handle it,” Theriault said. “I only know less officers trying to accomplish the same amount of work means something is going to suffer.”

Local chiefs, however, were hesitant to discuss what those choices may be, since budgets are not yet complete.

“I’m optimistic those cuts won’t happen,” said Chief Comeaux of Pleasantville.

Contact Lynda Cohen: