If some state legislators get their way, the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy could bring an end to one Jersey Shore tradition — the beach badge.
State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Hunterdon, Warren, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, have introduced legislation requiring any town that accepts state or federal aid for rebuilding its beaches to provide beach and restroom access for free.
“A beach fee is another word for tax,” Sweeney said Monday. “I just don’t agree with it. ... You’re taking federal money (and) tax dollars to build beaches. You shouldn’t charge me to go on a beach I already paid for. It’s like charging a fee to breathe air.”
Under the bipartisan legislation, municipalities that accept aid for rebuilding beaches — retroactive to Nov. 2 — “would not be allowed to adopt or enforce ordinances requiring the collection of fees for beach badges or otherwise as a requirement of being allowed to use or access a beach,” Senate Republicans said in a release.
In addition, those towns would be required to provide free public restrooms to beachgoers between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Sweeney said he hopes the bill will be part of a package of Sandy-related legislation expected to go to a vote in January.
Local mayors, meanwhile, have mixed feelings about the proposed legislation.
Longport Mayor Nick Russo, who has become a strong advocate of more and better dunes, said that if the borough was ever required to end its beach-badge program — which took in more than $200,000 in 2012 — it would mean less money in the general fund and less for lifeguards and beach cleanup.
“I really have to take a look at the bill,” Russo said. “I’m sure the intent of the legislation is not to hurt seashore communities.”
In Ventnor, which raised just less than $200,000 in beach fees this year, Mayor Mike Bagnell said he hadn’t yet reviewed the bill but that he didn’t believe it would apply to Ventnor in the near future. The agreement between the city and the Army Corps of Engineers for beach replenishment earlier this year states that if the dunes were damaged, “they would be replaced automatically at no charge to us,” Bagnell said.
In general, though, “That’s going to hurt a lot of towns that depend on beach fees,” he said. “They help pay for beach cleanup and maintenance, defray the costs of lifeguards and beach-badge checkers — well, not beach badge checkers then, I guess. But it would hurt towns that are hurting already. Any time you take a fee away from us, that means means more money passed onto the taxpayers.”
Cape May raises more than $2 million a year from beach-tag fees, the second most in Cape May County behind Ocean City, which raised nearly $4 million this year.
Part of Cape May’s beach is slated for replenishment this off-season, part of a federal agreement that schedules the city for replenishment every two to four years. The city is also in the process of raising its fees from $5 to $6 for daily passes and from $25 to $28 for seasonal passes purchased in season.
Mayor Ed Mahaney said that money pays for lifeguards, daily beach cleaning, restrooms and other services needed to operate beaches. All told, it costs the city nearly $2 million a year to maintain its beaches, plus the local share the municipality pays for each replenishment project.
Without beach-tag revenue, the burden on taxpayers would be too much to bear, he said. “The burden must be spread among all the users of the beach services.”
He also said he understands the philosophy behind the proposed law, but it would be practically impossible to institute.
“That bill, if passed, would be as devastating economically to the South Jersey beaches as the physical damage was for the North Jersey beaches,” he said.
Sweeney, however, said shore towns could handle ending beach fees “if they share services and run government a little more efficiently. A lot of small beach communities have a police chief, an administrator, a public works director. ... At some point, they’ve got to stop finding more fees.”
For his part, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said that “I’ve always been philosophically opposed to beach fees. ... I’ve always been very proud that Atlantic City never really considered them, going back to my days as a lifeguard or serving in city government. Beaches should be free.”
Staff Writer Lee Procida contributed to this report.
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