When Camden announced last week that it could lay off nearly half of its police officers and a third of its firefighters next month, the news was surprising only in its scope.
After years of cutting in other areas of government and trimming police and fire departments through attrition, cities throughout New Jersey recently have announced a striking number of layoffs in public-safety workers as municipal leaders seek to fill budget gaps created by lower-than-expected revenue.
In late November, Newark laid off 167 police officers, or about 13 percent of its department. The city also cut 130 firefighter positions through attrition this year.
Atlantic City has laid off 60 police officers and 30 firefighters in 2010, although it recently rehired 17 officers after others retired and the union agreed to givebacks.
Some mayors say they are taking extraordinary measures to ensure public safety. In Camden, Mayor Dana L. Redd has asked the fire and police unions for contract concessions that would reduce layoffs. The city also has started discussions with Pennsauken to handle firefighting in one part of Camden, according to Redd and Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor.
In Jersey City, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy is seeking givebacks from police and firefighters to prevent laying off 82 police officers.
Trenton Mayor Tony Mack has announced that he would be able to save 61 fire positions and 111 police jobs, in part through the aid of grants.
Suburban towns have not been spared and, in many cases, were hit even earlier. Cherry Hill laid off six police officers in June, Collingswood let go three firefighters in 2009, and Winslow Township cut eight police officers last year.
James Ryan, a spokesman for the state Police Benevolent Association, which represents 32,000 members, estimated that the number of municipal police officers in New Jersey declined 11 percent between Jan. 1, 2009, and Sept. 19, 2010, mainly through attrition.
For firefighters, the situation in New Jersey "is the worst that we've seen it anywhere," said Dominick Marino, president of the state's Professional Firefighters Association, which represents about 3,300 members.
"We are not blind to the economic woes and what's happening in the state and in the country," Marino said. "But firefighting - public safety - is different."
"A phone call can be returned tomorrow, or three hours later," he said. "When the bell rings, we can't say, 'Listen, we'll get back to you this afternoon or tomorrow.' "
Ed Brannigan, president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police, with 16,000 members, said the layoffs taking place now were worse than the layoffs across the state in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
After those, he said, cities gradually rehired many who had been pink-slipped. Today, he said, "there's no talk about bringing these guys back."
Resorting to layoffs of public-safety workers is a strong indication of just how badly cities and towns are hurting, experts say.
"The whole police and fire budget has always been sacrosanct, almost a sacred cow," said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
"You don't run for office on the premise that you're not going to deal with crime," he said. "That is something that you are very reluctant to do."
New Jersey lawmakers recently approved a bill to help laid-off police officers get rehired and to help local governments save money on training.
Across the country, municipalities are apt to feel the impact of the struggling real estate market, depressed consumer confidence, high unemployment, and decreased state aid for years to come, according to a report by the National League of Cities.
The decline in housing values will likely depress revenue in many cities through 2012 as assessments catch up with the real estate market, according to the report.
At the same time, health-care and pension costs are rising quickly, the report noted.
Local officials in New Jersey have taken pains to say they will do everything they can to ensure public safety is not compromised.
"We won't allow it to go to a point where services will suffer," Winslow Township Administrator Joseph Gallagher said. "Public safety is certainly a priority."
But police and firefighters say it's impossible to maintain the same level of service after such deep cuts.
"What I've seen over the past 10 years is a gradual undermining of the staffing so that even before the economic downturn, the departments were depleted," said Bill Lavin, president of the state Firemen's Mutual Benevolent Association, which has 5,500 members.
"There's no fat to be cut. It's inevitable there will be a loss of life," he said. "It's going to be tragic."
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said cities and towns were turning to public-safety workers because, as Willie Sutton said when asked why he robbed banks, that's where the money is.
"When there's no money, there's only so much you can cut everything else," Dworkin said.
In New Jersey's 2011 legislative campaigns, Dworkin said, one of the key themes will be whom to blame for cuts to schools, public safety, and social services.
Democrats will criticize the governor for refusing to raise taxes on those earning more than a million dollars while Republicans, led by Gov. Christie, will argue that Democrats are kowtowing to public employee unions and never met a tax they didn't like, Dworkin predicted.
"Where the public comes down on this issue is unclear at this time," he said.
On Friday, the blame game was well under way in Trenton.
At a news conference at the Statehouse, Christie criticized Camden's City Council for blaming him for the looming layoffs in the city, which recently was ranked the second most dangerous in the country.
"It's easy for Council members to blame someone else," Christie said at a news conference. "But they're the ones who have been managing the city for all these years and put [workers] in the position they're in."