LONGPORT — A lost smile is the latest cause célèbre in a beach resort not known for controversy.

“It’s almost like we’ve lost a very good friend,” said Allison Landry, a 24-year-old visitor from Coatesville, Pa., on a morning jog down Atlantic Avenue. “You expect to see him up there, but he’s gone.”

Longport’s water tower still rises 125 feet above the sleepy borough with a year-round population of 895, but a dispute over a repair and repainting contract last year has left its blue orb expressionless. The municipality is working to get it back, but officials say the process could be a long one.

Residents and visitors discuss the issue openly, and one enterprising activist drew up missing-person fliers — “Last seen: Devon and 31st” — plastered for a brief time on the borough’s utility poles.

“It was pretty clever,” Mayor Nick Russo said. “Of course, you can’t put anything on the poles, so somebody took it down.”

Russo fielded so many phone calls about the tower, he issued a news release at the start of the summer. The calls are still coming, he said.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, Longport hired a third party, the Maryland-based All-American Services, to evaluate the status of the water tower and how many repairs are left to be completed. The report, reviewed by city officials this week, confirmed what they already knew.

Borough Engineer Dick Carter said it will take at least $120,000 to finish a $600,000 project that had originally been awarded to the Malaga, Gloucester County-based Beckett Enterprises in 2011.

And the work, which came to a halt last year, may end up costing Longport even more money because of other issues that arose during construction and the need to hire another firm to complete smaller jobs that should have been part of a larger project.

“The residents, they’re making a joke about it now, putting up fliers,” Carter said. “But the bottom line is it’s quite serious. ... Now we have to spend more public money to get this work done properly.”

Carter said some of the required work could “affect the long-term use of the tank” if not completed in a timely manner. For instance, he said, anchor bolts at the base of the tower are continuing to rust because they were left unpainted.

Wesley Beckett, the contractor, could not be reached for comment, but in a previous interview he said work stopped because the city began withholding money for completed work.

“I was just hoping to get the issue resolved and come down there and complete the job,” he said.

Carter said it’s difficult to put a timeline on the project now. Some parts of the construction need to be completed before cold weather comes, he said.

But Carter said the tower is functioning properly and delivering quality water. The major problems are all related to long-term maintenance and construction costs.

“It’d make me feel much better to have all tank work done in concert,” he said. “This comes in 10- or 15-year cycles. When pieces of it are done (separately), it affects that cycle.”

Russo said the borough is still in communication with Beckett’s bonding company. The hope is to have the work completed without resorting to litigation, he said.

“If we were dealing directly with the contractor, we would’ve already started some legal action,” he said. “Because we have the bonding company representing the contractor, that’s another layer we have to get through.”

Meanwhile, the people of Longport have lost their amiable blue giant, whose pleasant smile has been a fixture of the community since the 50-year-old tower was repainted in 1982.

“Everybody’s missing the smiley face, but it’s not a major topic for me,” said local historian and former Mayor Michael Cohen. “I get my water and it goes away when I flush it, so everything’s fine.”

Carter is similarly circumspect:

“Anyone who knows Longport knows it doesn’t take a happy face on the tower to have happy people in town.”

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256

@wjmckelvey  on Twitter

Been working with the Press for about 27 years.