Today, Commissioners passed a resolution that would ask the city's registered voters to decide if Wildwood beaches should remain free or adopt beach fees in a referendum scheduled for March 5.
"I really was hoping that this would never come up in my time in government," said Mayor Ernie Troiano. "I was born and raised here and grew up going to the beach. But sitting in this seat here, I have to do what's best for the taxpayers."
Without the revenue generated from beach fees, Troiano said the city would be forced to look into layoffs.
Troiano said that Wildwood has always been unique and is the "work horse" of Five-Mile Island.
"People may stay in a hotel in Wildwood Crest, but they come to Wildwood to go to the boardwalk, or for an event or for the nightlife," he said.
That burden, Troiano said, comes at a high price tag when you consider things like beach maintenance, police overtime and public works for events.
"We're not a seashore resort. We're a city," he added.
Troiano said that the cost of maintaining the beach is close to $2 million.
The Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority gives the city $250,000 for beach maintenance from tax revenues generated by visitors. The taxpayers, Troiano said, cover the rest of the cost.
Additionally, Troiano said the city had expected a $1.6 million in a lease agreement in last year's $24.4 million budget. The lease was with Eastern Exchange, LLC for a boardwalk building and portion of the beach, but the contract had to be rescinded after a group of city residents presented petitions challenging the lease of 4101 Boardwalk, commonly called the monster truck building.
Without the money from the lease of the boardwalk property the city has a $1.6 million hole in its budget.
Commissioner Pete Byron, who oversees the department of revenue and finance, said that he expects beach fees to bring in around $1.2 million the first year.
"That's at the low end," Byron said of the estimate.
"Beach feels are like the pilings of a large foundation" Byron added. "They don't fix everything but they do give you the revenue when you have growing beaches where the maintenance fees are only going up."
Since the beaches in the Wildwoods have always been free, the idea of beach tags have been a polarizing issue, especially between business owners and residents.
Before the resolution was adopted, commissioners heard public comment from both sides of the issues.
Steve Tecco, who owns a motel in Wildwood Crest and is the president of the Wildwood Hotel Motel Association, told commissioners that the organization doesn't support beach fees.
Tecco said that fellow motel owners have told him that their businesses haven't been improving in the last year, "only maintaining."
"Our concern is that the tourists who came here for our beaches will now make other plans," he said.
Tecco said that GWTIDA has used the free beaches in the Wildwoods as a marketing tool.
“Are you free this summer? The Wildwoods are," is part of the tourism campaign to draw visitors to the five-mile island.
John Siciliano, executive director of GWTIDA, said he’d like to see the beaches kept free.
He said that a free beach separates Wildwoods from other shore towns that charge a fee. That distinction, he said, draws people into the city and has been an asset for tourism.
According to a press release from the authority, "Imposing of beach fees in Wildwood would not be advantageous and in the best interest to our overall tourism economy."
The $250,000 that the city gets from GWTIDA for beach expenses would also stop.
"I just ask you to consider the entire implications," Tecco said.
Resident Joe Salerno echoed the same concerns as Tecco.
"I have a strong fear that we're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," Salerno said of the importance of the city's beaches. "When a family of four has to spend $5 a person, at the least, just to go to the beach, we're going to kill the goose."
Gerry Vessels, of Wildwood, questioned if starting beach fees would be the end of tourism in Wildwood.
"Ocean City doesn't have a ruined tourism industry. Cape May doesn't have a ruined tourism industry," Vessels said of other municipalities that charge beachgoers.
"Are they dying?"Vessels asked.
"If we implemented beach fees how much is it going to destroy the tourism industry?" he asked commissioners.
"That's the question," replied Troiano.
Tom Ritchie, who has been a lifelong resident of the city, asked if neighboring Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood would also be on board with beach fees.
"We talked with Mr. Groon [Wildwood Crest Mayor Carl Groon] and Mr. Henfey [North Wildwood Mayor Bill Henfey] individually," said Byron. "We thought it would be nice if we can all do this at one time as an island and we reached out to them. But the timing just isn't right for them."
City voters have been asked at least twice, in 1976 and 1981, whether or not they wanted to charge beach fees in nonbinding referendums. Both times the majority voted no.
This vote, according to City Administrator Chris Wood, would be binding.
While commissioners only voted to move the question to a vote, the issue has already sparked conversation and media attention.
"It's amazing what happens when you just bring the words, beach fees, up," said Troiano and gestured to the television cameras at the afternoon meeting.
Hotel owners also said they they've been on the phone with customers asking if they need beach tags.
The Commissioners told the audience at the meeting that putting beach fees to a vote wasn't a "knee jerk decision."
" Wildwood is different than the town that I grew up in," said Troiano.
"Everything is changing," said resident Joanne LeMay, who owns a second home in the city. "Maybe Wildwood should change as well."
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