NEPTUNE — Beach badge fees are the bane of shore tourists and residents alike, but municipalities in Monmouth and Ocean counties love the money, raking in $4.3 million in surplus revenue last year.
And they may be illegally using that extra cash to trim local taxes.
Asbury Park used more than a quarter of a million dollars in excess beach money to ease property taxes, a city official said. Manasquan’s beach budget shows $2.4 million in revenue including surplus, nearly a half million dollars more than expected. Surf City sent unexpected beach money to the borough’s general fund, which pays for all local government services. Borough officials said it covered only beach expenses.
Ronald Chen, the state’s former Public Advocate, a now-defunct position that often sued to protect the public’s rights, said towns using beach money for anything but beach costs are breaking the law.
“It can’t be used for the general fund. They can’t do that,” said Chen, vice dean of Rutgers School of Law in Newark. “You can only spend that money for things like maintaining and policing the beaches.”
Last year, the 26 municipalities with public ocean beaches expected to collect $25.3 million primarily in beach badge revenue. With ample sunshine last summer, despite a tropical storm at the end of the season, they took in $29.6 million — $4.3 million above their own budgets.
New Jersey is one of the few states that let towns control the price of beach access. In Hawaii, Florida and many other coastal states, beachgoers generally enjoy the sand and surf for free. Connecticut and Rhode Island are two other states that charge beach fees.
Battles over beach badges occasionally break out in the New Jersey Legislature, but all those efforts have died early deaths, mostly because of cost and opposition from Shore lawmakers.
On the beaches last Friday, visitors expressed mixed feelings about shelling out cash for a plastic beach badge.
“I get it in a certain sense,” said Russ Fallik, 40, of Edgewater, who was lounging on Avon beach and plans to spend the summer at the shore as he has for years. “But are they really using the money for what they’re saying? That’s the hundred-dollar question.”
He vacationed in Barbados in April with a friend who toted a backpack covered in Spring Lake day beach passes that he purchased over time.
“People in Barbados were like, ‘You mean you pay to get on the beach?' They were dumbfounded,” Fallik said.
Renee Gross, of Sparta, hovered over her toddler son and older daughter with her husband Jason on Avon’s beach.
“That’s Jersey for you — they get you for whatever,” she said.
Cost of extra services
Local town leaders argue that the beach crowds cost them for services such as police patrols and trash collection, costs that are not reflected in the budgets. Damage from Tropical Storm Irene in August added to the towns’ budgetary burdens.
But beach access advocates like Ralph Coscia say there should be a better accounting of what the towns make and spend. Any windfalls should go toward lowering beach fees, he said.
“Let’s face it: Basically you’re talking about a cash cow,” said Coscia, president of Citizens Right To Access Beaches, a Point Pleasant Beach-based group that fights for access and provides items like free beach wheelchairs. The retired teacher said he does frequent the only publicly owned, but privately run, beach in Point Pleasant Beach.
Deal took in about $225,000 more in beach revenues in 2011 than the $1.3 million it expected. The surplus was plowed back into the borough’s general fund, but it was no windfall, said James F. Rogers, borough clerk and administrator.
“If you ran (the beach) as a business, you’d probably close it down,” he said.
Deal’s 2012 municipal budget shows beach revenue, salaries, wages and other expenses for the beachfront operation, and capital improvements for the beaches, but not items such as insurance, electricity and police that go toward operating the beaches safely, he said.
The surplus, in other words, gets eaten up by those unbudgeted services, Rogers said. And if beach revenue comes in lower than expected because of bad weather, for instance, the local homeowners foot the bill through their local taxes, he said.
The borough is committed to constant capital improvements to its beaches and in keeping its badge fees low, Rogers said. The Conover Pavilion, one of two beaches in the borough, charges $6 a day.
Two laws conflict
New Jersey law allows towns to charge beach fees “in order to provide funds to improve, maintain and police the (beach) and to protect the same ... and to provide facilities and safeguards for public bathing and recreation,” including lifeguards.
But Fred Ebenau, chief financial officer for Berkeley, which faced a nearly $2,000 shortfall in beach revenue last year, mentioned another statute regarding higher-than-expected revenues that conflicts with that.
Those revenues “must go into the general fund by law,” Ebenau said.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees municipal budgets, sided with the towns that put beach revenue surpluses back into their general funds. But they must cover beach costs, said Hollie Gilroy, spokeswoman for the department.
In that case “using beach funds for beach-related general fund costs would be appropriate,” she said.
Surf City has sent excess beach revenue to the borough’s general fund for years, said David Pawlishak, the borough’s chief financial officer. The budgets are routinely sent to the state for approval.
“Trenton’s never had a problem with it,” he said.
Surf City Mayor Leonard Connors said the money goes toward beach expenses, not lowering property taxes, citing the in-house line-item allocation of those funds.
This year, Asbury Park sent $274,000 in excess beach revenue to the general fund, identified by Juan Uribe, the city’s chief financial officer, as “property tax relief” money.
“The beach utility budget has to be self-liquidating” under the law, Uribe said, stressing that local taxpayers have to pay for any shortfalls. “It goes both ways.”
A “beach utility budget” keeps beach revenues and expenditures separate from the general budget. Few towns use them.
Chen, who served as the state’s Public Advocate in the Corzine administration, said a court case in the 1980s clarified the law, but not all towns follow it.
The case brought by the state’s then-Public Advocate Alfred Slocum against Belmar concerned whether the beach fees charged by the borough produced revenues that exceeded what is necessary to offset beachfront costs, among other issues.
The court ruled that Belmar must account for how it spent its beach revenue.
And according to Chen, that means all Shore towns are supposed to be doing the same — maintaining a clear traceable cost-accounting system and abiding by the beach fees statute.
Surplus revenue should go toward lowering beach badge fees under the law, he said.
Why are towns not following established law? Sometimes, you have to sue to make towns comply with legal actions, he said.
That was the role of the Public Advocate, he said. The office was abolished under the Christie administration.
Belmar is one of the few towns that follows the court mandate. It continues to outline in great detail what it spends on beach operations, down to parking meter maintenance and landfill costs for garbage disposal.
“Belmar is engaging in open, transparent government,” Chen said.
An Associated Press member exchange report.