STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — Five township police officers received notice late Wednesday afternoon that they will be laid off March 31.

Township Administrator James Moran said laying off five police officers will save the township $600,000.

"Not all of the officers are at the top of the pay scale, but this will save $600,000 in one fell swoop. That's a penny and a half on the tax rate," Moran said.

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But Township police Chief Thomas Conroy said the savings come at a cost.

One of the officers, Marissa Fence, is pregnant and will lose her health insurance, Conroy said.

"I fear for Marissa's well-being and her family's financial stability and the added stress this will put on her," Conroy said.

Moran said the township's top patrolman salary is $96,000. The township is currently negotiating the Police Department's 2009 and 2010 contracts.

Last week, 14 police officers in Galloway Township also received layoff notices in the township's attempt to make up $954,722 to help balance next year's budget.

Stafford Township's 57-member department will be cut down to 52 officers as a result of the layoffs.

Moran said he does not know how much of a tax increase the township is facing, but officials already are anticipating paying $800,000 more in health benefits. The township's annual budget is about $36 million.

"We have a $3,000 per person (per municipal employee) increase for benefits and 3 percent salary increases for 2010. That's about $1.5 million in new expenses. Where are we going to get that money?" he said.

Moran said Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 296 would not agree to the township's offer of no raises for officers in 2009 and 3 percent raises in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He said the officers union would also not agree to taking as many as 10 furlough days this year.

"If they would take 10 furlough days, there would be no layoffs. It is the same as everyone else in town has been offered. I will even be taking 10 furlough days," he said.

In December, Township Council unanimously approved a three-year contract for Moran with a base salary of $155,000.

In addition to Fence, four other officers will be laid off, including:

Chris Smith, a seven-year veteran who left the Barnegat Township force to work in Stafford Township and was recently honored for saving a local resident's life; Mark Flanagan, who has been on the force for three years; Keith Oler, a 20-year veteran who left the Ship Bottom Police Department to work in Stafford Township; and Edward Kunder, who recently was recognized for a gang-related weapons arrest.

"I get more letters from the community about officers Smith and Oler than anyone in the department," Conroy said.

On Wednesday evening, Conroy said he is extremely disappointed by the township's decision.

"This will involve a reduction in services, and now I worry about public safety. I will have to reallocate officers back to patrolling, which will mean I will have less detectives. The town is growing, and our workload is growing. We shouldn't be laying off police officers," Conroy said.

Stuart Alterman, attorney for PBA Local 296, said the layoff decision compromises the safety and welfare of the residents and visitors to Stafford Township.

"It's a sad day when a naive and inexperienced administration will sacrifice public safety for a weak attempt to intimidate the union," Alterman said.

Although township officials announced Tuesday that the K-9 Unit will also be disbanded effective March 19, Conroy said, his focus and concern is on the five police officers who will lose their jobs.

"They are not equipment like radios in cars. These are real people. This is the future of our department, these five people. They all came to Stafford for a reason, and I don't want to see them go somewhere else. We could end up losing them. It's my belief that the taxpayers expect a certain level of service, and these five people are a part of that," Conroy said.

Conroy said some officers have announced their retirement this year and that administration can find another way to avoid the layoffs.

"I will be at the town meeting Tuesday to fight for these five officers, and my goal is that they don't get laid off. And I hope Stafford residents come out to support these officers," Conroy said.

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