SEA ISLE CITY — More than 20 leaders from Cape May County called on the state Legislature on Monday to drop a proposed bill that would eliminate beach fees for any municipality accepting government funding for beach replenishment.
Officials from all six beachfront communities in the county that require beach badges gathered in Sea Isle City to call the law irresponsible, an affront to home rule and simply foolish.
Sea Isle Mayor and county Freeholder Len Desiderio said the idea is a bad one at any time, but it is even worse now because it is expected to be taken up in January with a number of other Hurricane Sandy-related bills.
“Any proposed legislation regarding beach tags should not be tied to a disaster recovery such as Hurricane Sandy. It should be examined upon its own merits,” he said. “This is exactly the wrong time and the wrong legislation.”
State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Hunterdon, Somerset, Warren, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, are the primary sponsors of the legislation. They announced it Dec. 3, but a full copy of the bill, numbered S2368, was unavailable online as of Monday.
Details of the proposal released so far have been that any municipality that accepts federal or state funding for beach replenishment after Nov. 2, 2012, would no longer be able to create or enforce laws requiring beach fees. They would also have to provide free public restrooms between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Their argument is that if taxpayers are paying to replenish beaches with sand, they should not have to pay again to enjoy the sand.
On Monday, local elected officials, government administrators and beach patrol officers presented a lot of economic arguments against that idea.
Beach fees are just like any other user fee, such as charging tolls on roads and sign-up fees for children to play in municipally run sports leagues, they said.
They argued that shore communities generate far more in tax revenue each year than they receive in return. They explained that eliminating beach fees shifts the cost of maintaining and monitoring beaches entirely onto taxpayers rather than spreading the burden between locals and visitors.
To pay for current levels of cleaning, lifeguards and facilities without the revenue from millions of dollars in beach fees, each community in Cape May County would have to raise tax rates between 1.5 and 8 cents, something that would not be possible for all of them given the state’s cap on tax-levy increases, they said.
“Elected officials are called many things, but I don’t think we’ve ever been called magicians,” Desiderio said.
Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters also noted that taxpayers in several communities are already partially paying for their own beach-replenishment projects, since most state and federal projects require local contributions.
The federal government typically pays for 65 percent of its projects. The state and local governments involved pay the remaining 35 percent. County governments also sometimes contribute.
Of that remaining 35 percent, the state pays 75 percent and the municipality pays 25 percent. That means the state pays about 26 percent of the total project and the local government about 9 percent.
For state-run projects, the state pays 75 percent and the local government pays 25 percent.
Different municipalities pay these expenses differently. Walters said the money Stone Harbor makes from beach fees is inadequate to cover all beach-related costs, and eliminating those fees will only increase the tax burden on locals.
“What we need to do is get to our taxpayers and let them know that these senators are going to force us to raise our taxes,” Walters said.
It remains to be seen how much Sandy damage will end up costing shore governments and what effects those costs will have on tax rates next year.
Monday’s news conference was held in the former Sea Isle City Elementary School because the city’s municipal building was wrecked by the storm and will likely be demolished and rebuilt.
Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney said his city would have to raise tax rates 8 cents to pay for services currently funded by beach fees. Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian said it would be a 4-cent increase in his city.
In Stone Harbor, Walters said it would reflect a 1.5-cent increase, which translates to a $217 annual increase for the average homeowner with a property assessed at $1.4 million.
The only oceanfront communities in Cape May County that do not charge beach fees are the Wildwoods, Upper Township’s Strathmere section and Lower Township, which contains pieces of preserved natural land in between Cape May and Cape May Point.
Atlantic City does not charge fees either, but practically every other oceanfront community in the state does. They range from $15 for a seasonal tag in Ventnor and Margate to $100 at some Monmouth County beaches.
Last week, legislators from the 9th and 1st legislative districts, representing Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties, pointed out in a letter to Sweeney that the state-operated Island Beach State Park charges fees to enter and use its beaches.
“Using the current situation as an opportunity to impose changes on shore communities regarding the process of beach operations is excessive, would not be consistent with our state’s recovery efforts and would demonstrate a level of insensitivity to those affected municipalities that are struggling to rebuild their devastated communities,” the letter states.
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