The budget process for local governments is in full swing - and most of the news hasn't been good. Ensuring municipal budgets hold to the state's new 2 percent cap on property-tax increases will mean more furloughs, layoffs and service cuts in many towns.

Considering those bleak headlines, Atlantic County's budget was a pleasant anomaly. Freeholders last week approved a budget that came in about $1.5 million below the state cap. It contained no layoffs, no furloughs and no tax increases.

Freeholders wisely declined a suggestion from Budget Committee Chairman Joseph McDevitt to consider furloughs anyway to cut the budget 1 percent across the board, a move aimed at bringing the total budget number below last year's $189 million level.

We're all in favor of government paring back - but neither should it inflict pain needlessly in these difficult times just to send an arbitrary and symbolic message. Atlantic County was quick to institute a furlough program when the economy first plummeted, and it laid off 17 employees between 2008 and 2010. Instead of cutting more now, freeholders said they plan to meet with department heads in an effort to see where further economies can be made.

With Atlantic County on relatively solid financial ground this year, it seems to be in a good position to join Camden, Morris and Somerset counties in exploring the idea of a countywide police force as a way to help municipalities deal with the pain of budget cutbacks. And it has already shown the inclination and ability to regionalize services. Over the years, it has regionalized training for police officers and firefighters, as well as established a regional animal shelter. A centralized 911 dispatch service - long in the works - is expected to come to fruition in early 2012, according to a county spokesman.

Of course, it's unclear whether a countywide police force is workable or whether towns would even want to join. The resistance to regionalizing emergency services is often high, with towns clinging to home rule and residents worried about reduced service.

But the climate has changed dramatically. In places like Galloway and Hamilton townships, police layoffs are already reducing service. In Galloway, supplemental and proactive patrols were eliminated. In Hamilton, layoffs meant the traffic patrol unit was eliminated, while police will no longer come out to homes for minor police calls.

Government has to start doing things in different ways. Countywide police departments are something that ought to be explored - in Atlantic County and elsewhere.

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