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By Chris Newmarker
The Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. - In rural Hope Township in northwest New Jersey, there are stories about how state troopers would patrol on horseback and spend the night at farmhouses back in the 1920s.
For more than 80 years, the New Jersey State Police has provided free police protection to small towns such as Hope that couldn't afford their to have their own local forces. But beginning this fall, cash-strapped New Jersey is charging towns for the service.
The concept doesn't sit well with many officials in small towns throughout the state, including Hope Mayor Timothy McDonough.
"We always bought into the idea that we wouldn't develop our towns, that we would keep them rural, and that we would always have state police. And now they want to charge us for it. It's not fair," McDonough said.
Hope is one of 89 New Jersey towns, most with fewer than 10,000 residents, that have until Dec. 15 to decide whether to pay the tab or find another way to provide police protection. Most of the towns don't have local forces; those that do only have officers working part of the time.
The concept of charging towns for police protection is not new. In many states, rural towns contract with county sheriffs, not state police, for police protection, according to the National League of Cities.
Connecticut for decades has provided free state police protection to towns without forces, but many pay for "resident troopers" who provide extra protection. In Pennsylvania, hundreds of towns without local forces get state police protection without charge, but there's a proposal in the Legislature to make larger towns pay.
New Jersey's decision to start charging for small-town police protection is an example of states getting creative as they seek new revenue sources to ease budget deficits, said Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.
"When you consider the situation New Jersey is in, suddenly things are on the table that politically you may not want to be on the table but you get to the point where you have a tough situation," Pattison said.
New Jersey is trying to cut into $32 billion of debt. In June, the Legislature passed a $33 billion state budget that included $2.9 billion in spending cuts. By charging small towns for police protection, the state hopes to raise about $12.6 million.
"We worked to lower the burden on rural areas but, as an issue of fairness, we do not intend to balance payment for these services on the backs of taxpayers throughout the state," said Corzine spokesman Robert Corrales.
In New Jersey, the state formula for billing the towns limits the charges to $100 per family. Hope has about 700 families, so that means it owes about $70,000 _ 7 percent of the town's annual budget of $1 million.
McDonough, the town mayor, pointed out that 90 percent of the fines from tickets the state police write in his town goes to the state.
"We send hundreds of thousands of dollars per year through our court system for tickets state police write in our towns and surrounding towns," McDonough said.
New Jersey towns are seeking relief through the state Council on Local Mandates, which has the power to strike down the charges. The council is expected to hold a hearing soon on the matter.
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, wants Gov. Jon S. Corzine to hold off a year on charging the towns. The governor's office says it's standing by the present plan.
Van Drew wants the Legislature to pass a measure adding a $9 surcharge on all motor vehicle violations to defray the costs of providing local police services.
Meanwhile, Mannington Township Mayor Donald Asay isn't sure what his town will do when the Dec. 15 deadline arrives. His rural, 38-square-mile southern New Jersey town would pay the state $114,000 _ about a tenth of its $1.2 million budget _ for police protection.
Asay said to pay for the protection, Mannington will likely have to raise property taxes _ an unpopular choice anywhere in New Jersey, which has the highest property taxes in the nation.
"Is it any wonder that the public holds Trenton in such low self esteem?" Asay said.

Wire Service
 
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