Most shore communities from Long Beach Island to Cape May reported that they sold thousands fewer beach tags by the start of June than they had in previous years, even though sales had trended upward in recent years.
Surf City sold 12,164 badges as of June 1 this year, but had sold 14,042 as of June 1 last year. That's a 13 percent drop.
Sea Isle City sold 42,919 beach badges as of June 1, 9 percent fewer than the 47,412 it had sold by that point last year.
Avalon sold 32,025 badges as of June 1 this year, a 9 percent drop from the 35,307 sold last year by then.
The knee-jerk reaction to these numbers is that visitors were wary of committing to buying tags ahead of time following Hurricane Sandy, and that may have certainly been the case for at least some people.
Some officials argue, however, that the weather to start the season was as much, if not more, to blame.
"The weather hasn't caught up with the calendar yet, and everyone's saying that," said Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio. He pointed out that rainy weather during Memorial Day weekend kept people off the beach.
"The weather has not cooperated with us so far," he said, "It has nothing to do with Sandy."
The declines were not just down from last year, though. In most cases, they were down from the past several years.
Cape May, for instance, sold between 43,000 and 45,000 tags by June 1 from 2010 to 2012. This year, it sold 32,387 from Dec. 1, when preseason tags went on sale for 2013, to June 1.
Brigantine sold between 26,000 and 27,000 tags by the start of June the past three years, but had sold a little more than 20,000 this year. Ship Bottom normally sells about 16,000 tags by June 1 but sold fewer than 13,000 by the start of June this year.
John Cooke, president of the Greater Cape May Chamber of Commerce, also said he blames the rainy weather during Memorial Day weekend as the reason for the decline. He said that while clouds and cool temperatures kept people off the sand, the Washington Street Mall was packed, evidence that people were not scared away from the resort entirely.
"Our crowds on the Washington Street Mall over the Memorial Day weekend during the day resembled a July 4th evening," he said. "We had nighttime-style crowds during the day on our mall, which is indicative of it not being beach weather."
Ocean City officials said the same thing about the holiday weekend, noting that the weather made people visit the downtown on Asbury Avenue and maybe even increased the economic impact of their stay.
"The one nice day we had Memorial Day (weekend), there were tons of people here, I can tell you that," said Ocean City Beach Patrol Chief Tom Mullineaux.
The declines in sales do mean less revenue for the governments that use beach tag fees to offset maintenance and replenishment costs.
Municipalities make between $145,000 a year in Cape May Point to about $4 million a year in Ocean City from beach tag sales. That ranges from less than 1 percent of the government's entire budget, such as in Ventnor, to as high as 12 percent or 13 percent, such as in Ship Bottom, according to an analysis by The Press of Atlantic City.
Total revenue from beach fees has been steady in recent years. Most towns saw an increase in 2011 and a slight dip in 2012.
Those communities that saw increases last year, such as Ocean City and Sea Isle City, had recently raised their fees. Cape May was one of the only communities to raise its rates this year, with daily badges now $6 instead of $5 and seasonal badges $28 instead of $25.
Just how precious beach tag money is to these governments became clear when a bill was proposed in December that would ban charging beach fees in areas replenished with sand as part of recovery from Sandy. Local leaders immediately objected.
Desiderio organized a news conference in Sea Isle City with a number of mayors and tourism officials from Cape May County to argue against the bill. Nothing has happened with the bill since it was introduced.
"I'm figuring no news is good news on this account," he said.
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Annual beach fee revenue in local shore communities, from north to south