WILDWOOD — City voters have been asked at least twice, in 1976 and 1981, whether or not they wanted to charge beach fees. Both times they said no.
Now, City Commission is giving them a third opportunity to vote on the notion of charging visitors to use the city's ever-growing beach.
At a 2 p.m. meeting Friday, the commission is expected to authorize City Clerk/Administrator Chris Wood to hold a special election asking the question.
Wood said the election, which will cost $25,000, would likely take place March 5.
Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said Thursday that he was hearing support from members of the public.
"The city needs to come up with revenue," Troiano said.
Maintaining the beach costs about $1 million annually, with taxpayers covering $760,000 of that cost. The rest is covered by about $240,000 paid each year to the city by the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority from tax revenues generated by visitors.
John Siciliano, GWTIDA executive director, said Thursday that the city would no longer receive the GWTIDA funding if the town adopts a beach tag program because the legislation that created the beach offset program said the towns couldn’t have both.
Wildwood and neighboring Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood all have free beaches and the other towns have no plans at this time to implement fees.
But Troiano said Wildwood's budget troubles require action.
The city had included $1.6 million in revenue in its 2012 budget that was to come from a lease agreement for sections of the city's beach and the former monster truck building, but that agreement ended following a court challenge by opponents.
That leaves the city with $1.6 million that must be replaced.
While Troiano expects many business owners to oppose the fees, he said residents are likely to support it.
"Taxpayers can no longer shoulder the burden," he said.
Tracey Dufault, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, said the organization's 650 members have not taken a formal vote or position on the matter of beach tags yet.
"Our concern is are we sending away the visitors that come to Wildwood," Dufault said.
The free beaches have been used to market the island to visitors looking for budget-friendly attractions.
Without beach fees, Dufault said, "Those visitors can spend at our retail businesses and our accommodations businesses."
Dufault also noted that many business owners are not voters, so they will not have a say in the final outcome of any referendum.
While she understands taxpayers’ concerns, Dufault said the matter is much bigger than a single line on a ballot.
"What are we going to lose?" she asked.
Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said she did not know what the impact of a beach fee in Wildwood would be, but she said municipalities have to do what they have to do.
In Cape May County, only the Wildwoods and Upper Township do not charge beach fees. In Atlantic County, Atlantic City's beaches are free.
"The story that has to be told is it's very expensive to maintain those beaches," Wieland said.