Wildwood’s annual discussion on whether or not the resort should institute beach fees shows no sign of ending.
During the first City Commission meeting of the year in January, the subject came up as the town’s leaders looked for alternative funding sources. As the year closes, the conversation continues.
“We, as taxpayers and property owners, we do pay beach fees,” Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said of the beach maintenance costs borne by taxpayers through the town’s budget. “I don’t know how the taxpayers can continue to foot that bill.”
He estimates that the city spends about $1 million a year on beach-related expenses.
The Cape May County town is one of the few on the South Jersey shore that does not have a beach fee. Its expansive beach, which measures 1,600 feet from Boardwalk to water’s edge and is about three football fields long from north to south, requires the year-round attention of at least six full-time public works employees and two more each summer, Public Works Superintendent Mark Damico said.
“Because of the size of our beach, it’s very labor intensive,” he said.
A state Senate bill banning beach fees in many towns could complicate matters. That bill, co-sponsored by State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Hunterdon, Warren, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, would ban beach fees in towns that receive post-Sandy federal or state funds for beach replenishment.
In Wildwood, workers clean the beach, shift sand that has become lodged under the Boardwalk, rake it and drain it. The wear and tear on equipment is also significant, Damico said.
“A piece of equipment that should last nine years will last four or five on the beach. The sand tears it up. It cuts the life in half and the maintenance is doubled,” Damico said.
At January’s meeting, Troiano suggested that any move toward beach fees should require a referendum, letting the town’s residents decide on starting the fees.
No referendum has taken place, but the matter has been before island voters in years past.
In 1976, and again in 1981, Wildwood voters defeated nonbinding and binding referendums, respectively, that would have allowed the city to institute beach fees..
In the first ballot, voters were asked two questions. The first asked if the city should have beach fees even if neighboring North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest don’t. The second asked if the city should institute beach fees if its neighbors did. The results of the first vote were: 1,118 against and 582 for, while the second question drew 921 against to 722 for it.
In 1981, a binding referendum again asked voters to consider imposing the fees that were already commonplace in places such as Ocean City and Cape May. Again, voters said ‘no’ in a vote of 948 to 533.
Wildwood receives $300,000 in funding for beach maintenance from the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, money collected through the island’s tourism taxes.
But the cost of maintaining the beach is $1 million. The difference, Troiano said, is made up through taxpayer dollars.
The maintenance programs, he added, are a necessity because of the condition of the beaches each summer.
“You have a free beach and people trash it,” he said. The cleanup that takes place each evening and early morning, he said, means that “it goes from a dumpsite to a pristine beach.”
But while the maintenance is required, beach fees remain controversial here with groups such as the Greater Wildwoods Hotel Motel Association publicly expressing opposition, calling the tags “a bad idea,” when the issue came up in 2011.
In neighboring North Wildwood, Mayor Bill Henfey adamantly opposes the fees.
“We would like to see the entire island stay beach-fee free,” Henfey said.
His city relies on parking meter revenue instead. The town collected about $800,000 in parking meter revenue this year.
Henfey said the cost of establishing a beach tag program, such as hiring beach tag checkers, administrating the program and producing the tags, all make it difficult to make money.
“It isn’t worth the effort and the negative effect on the economy from all the bad press,” Henfey said.
Cape May instituted beach fees in 1977, but Mayor Ed Mahaney said the town didn’t break even until about 2000.
The city currently collects about $2.1 million in beach tag fees and this year the costs of the beach reached $1.9 million. The remainder will be used for beach replenishment.
The city charges $5 for a daily pass, but that rate will go up to $6 in 2013. Seasonal passes, depending on when they are purchased, range from $15 to $28 in 2013.
“It was controversial. They wondered if it would kill tourism, but it didn’t,” Mahaney said.
Farther north, Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio said the city collected $1.4 million in beach tag fees this year, but those don’t cover all of the costs associated with the beach and none of the money is used for beach replenishment.
Damico, 50 and a lifelong Wildwoods resident, thinks beach tags would be helpful, but he said that either way the beach will still need tending.
“No matter what, we have to do our job,” he said.
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