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Danny Drake

Municipalities are finding out that free money can be costly in the long run.

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than $3.2 million in grants to four South Jersey towns in June to hire more police officers through its Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program. But instead of accepting the money, some towns are returning some or all of it because they can’t afford to accept it.

If the government pays for officers for three years, the grant requires towns to keep them for a fourth year. While Atlantic City, Hamilton Township, Bridgeton and Wildwood all received grants through the federal program, Hamilton and Bridgeton have refused it.

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Atlantic City has qualified for a $1.9 million grant, but Public Safety Director Willie Glass said the city has not decided how much of the grant it will use. The city can hire as many as 15 officers, but Glass said officials do not want to budget for the extra officers four years from now.

“It’s an issue of (when) will the money be available,” he said. “You have to be careful. You don’t want to spend money you can’t afford.”

But other towns have decided to reject the grant entirely.

Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly said the city has decided not to accept the money for three officers due to the cost implications of the fourth year.

“It’s very unfortunate,” he said. “We were looking forward to it, but the requirements are too stringent for our budget at this time.”

Hamilton Mayor Roger Silva also said the township could not afford to add the salaries for the fourth year to the budget. The township laid off 13 officers last year due to budget cuts and has rededicated itself to approving only expenses it knows it can afford to pay.

“If you take them, it keeps building your budget and — in the end — it’s going to cost you. If you’re not prepared, it will come back on you,” he said. “There is no free money. It all comes with a price.”

The federal program has funded the salaries of more than 5,000 officers in the state — and 120,000 officers nationwide — since its implementation in 1995, according to the Justice Department. The criteria for the program change year to year. This year, nine municipalities in the state received more than $9.4 million to hire 60 officers.

Under this year’s requirements, the grant will pay the first three years of the officers’ salaries for new positions and the towns must pay the fourth year. This year for the first time the new officers must be military veterans with at least 180 days of active service since Sept. 11, 2001.

Justice Department spokesman Corey Ray said the program is very popular with towns. The department did not even accept applications this year and just picked from last year’s pool of applicants, since there were so many to choose from, he said.

“The grant is very competitive,” he said. “This money is hard to come by.”

Ray said there usually are a handful of municipalities who decline the grant because of future funding issues, but it’s usually “extremely low” compared to the total number. The department has yet to determine how many towns accepted the grant this year.

“We like to see the agencies accept the funding,” he said. “It’s a good deal for them.”

Wildwood has decided to accept the grant to add two officers, but police Chief Steven Long said the concern for the department is not the money, but finding qualified applicants. The city is not concerned with matching the fourth-year salaries because it already has vacant positions. The department has 31 officers, down from 46 three years ago.

“If we can find people to hire, we will fill the positions as long as they meet the qualifications,” he said.

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Follow Joel Landau on Twitter @landaupressofac

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