WILDWOOD — Voters will decide March 5 whether the city should charge people to go to the beach.

City Commission, in a 3-0 vote Friday, approved a binding ballot referendum that would immediately put in place an ordinance establishing beach fees.

The question will read: Should the ordinance proposed, which shifts funding for beach maintenance from a tax (paid by property owners) to a user fee (paid by beach-goers), be adopted?

The fee schedule in the ordinance calls for a $5 daily fee, $10 for three days, $15 for a week, $15 for a seasonal tag purchased prior to April 1, and $25 for a seasonal tag bought April 1 or later.

The city has held two previous referendums on whether to charge beach fees and they both were defeated. The last one, in 1981, was non-binding. There are just shy of 3,000 registered voters in the city.

City Commissioner Anthony Leonetti said operating the beaches costs the city close to $2 million per year. That includes lifeguards and cleaning costs but does not include police, fire and rescue personnel who often have to cover special events.

Mayor Ernie Troiano said the city, which has the highest tax rate in Cape May County, has a $1.6 million budget hole from 2012 and faces a similar loss in revenue this year. That figure comes from a lease agreement for a private company to use sections of the beach. The agreement ended following a court challenge and the anticipated revenue will not be coming in. Troiano said the city is looking at staff reductions to close the budget gap but is already short-staffed.

“I’ve lived in this town my entire life and I never paid a beach fee, but I have to look out for the taxpayers,” Troiano said.

Commissioner Peter Byron said a low estimate has the fees generating at least $1 million and up to $1.2 million the first year.

“It isn’t the answer to all our fiscal problems. It took Cape May over 10 years before they finally broke even. Our beaches are getting larger and it costs more to maintain them,” Byron said.

The revenue would be offset somewhat by the $200,000 Leonetti said it would cost for beach tag checkers. The city would also lose $250,000 in revenue paid each year by the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.

GWTIDA gets the money from a 1.85 percent tourism assessment paid by visitors. Though GWTIDA would no longer have to pay the city, the organization that promotes Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood came out Friday in opposition to beach tags, partly due to the logistical problem of having tags in Wildwood but not having them in North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. The organization was set up to promote all three towns and uses free beaches in its marketing.

GWTIDA said the tags could also endanger a Tourism Development Fee that covers such costs as boardwalk police. It was expected to be $175,000 this year.

Byron said he talked to officials in North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest to convince them to come up with a joint program, but he said they were not interested at this time.

All three towns have free beaches. The only town on Five-Mile Beach that has beach tags is the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township, but those are privately owned beaches. The only other free ocean beaches in the county are in Upper Township, which has lifeguards, and Lower Township between Cape May and Cape May Point, which has no lifeguards and prohibits ocean bathing.

Business interests at the meeting spoke against the proposal. Atlantic Avenue resident and businessman Joe Salerno, though he said his taxes “are outrageous, said the tourists will stop coming and this would stress police, fire and school budgets while bringing more Section 8 housing tenants. Salerno said a family of four would not pay $20 to go the beach.

“I have a strong fear we’re going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and that’s the beach,” Salerno said.

Steve Tecco, president of the Greater Wildwood Hotel and Motel Association, said his 182-member organization opposes beach fees. He said his members have suffered a steady decline in revenue over the past five years. He said taxes, utilities and other costs are rising but the accommodations industry doesn’t want to raise rates and drive people away. He said free beaches have been a great marketing tool for all three towns.

“We’re very fearful that many people who drive by our sister communities to come to the Wildwoods will make other plans,” Tecco said.

Several residents who do not own local business supported the proposal. Gerard Vessels said it’s not fair for taxpayers to foot the beach bill. He said other towns with such fees still draw plenty of tourists.

“How much will it hurt the tourist industry?” Vessels asked.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Troiano responded.

Hudson Avenue resident Joanne LeMay said taxes are hurting residents. She noted a lot of day trippers don’t stay in the hotels but bring their lunch and enjoy the free beaches while spending no money in town.

“I think the time has come where we do need that revenue. I don’t think $5 is too high. They’re still going to come,” LeMay said.

Tom Ritchie questioned how the city could handle the privately owned beaches in town.

“We can’t make a private owner collect fees, but we can do it in city areas,” said City Attorney Dorothy Garrabrandt.

If approved, Troiano said the city would follow Cape May’s program and put all beach fee revenue in a separate fund that is used to pay for lifeguards, tag checkers, beach cleaning and other beach costs. The mayor, however, said unlike Cape May the city would allow the tags to be transferred between people. This means motels and hotels could buy blocks of tags different guests could use freely all summer.

Troiano said legislation proposed by two state lawmakers that would eliminate beach tags in some shore towns would not affect Wildwood. State Sen. Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester and Cumberland, has joined with Senator Michael Doherty, R-Warren, Hunterdon, Somerset, in proposing a bill that calls for free beaches and public restrooms in shore towns that get federal and state dollars for beach repairs. Troiano said the city does not get any of these federal or state monies.

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