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Ocean City to Raise Price of Beach Tags

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Cape May County's beaches continue to be a primary attraction to tourists.

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

The cost of going to the beach in Ocean City during the summer is on its way up.

By a 7-0 vote, City Council introduced an ordinance Thursday night to increase the price for seasonal, weekly and daily beach tags starting in 2023. A public hearing and final vote on the proposal are scheduled for the Oct. 20 Council meeting.

Under the plan, the cost of seasonal beach tags will rise from the current $25 to $35 if they are purchased June 1 or later. The city will continue to offer a preseason discount on seasonal tags bought through May 31. However, the discounted price will increase from the current $20 to $30.

Weekly beach tags will double from the current $10 to $20. Daily tags will also double, jumping from the current $5 to $10.

The Council members seemed reluctant to approve higher beach fees, but indicated they had no other choice amid the escalating cost of running the municipal government.

“We’ve tried for as long as we could not to do this. We’re at a breaking point,” Councilman Bob Barr said.

Barr, though, suggested that Council could revisit the issue next year if higher beach fees discourage tourists from vacationing in Ocean City or have a negative impact on local businesses.

“We’re not locked in,” he said of the possibility of rolling back beach fees in the future.

One resident who opposes higher beach fees said Ocean City may threaten its image as “America’s Greatest Family Resort” by pricing out younger families and becoming a town that only affluent visitors can afford.

“These costs are becoming prohibitive for average families,” Sheila Hartranft told the Council members.

Ocean City resident Sheila Hartranpt, who opposes raising beach fees, tells Council that young families may not be able to afford a price increase.

Hartranft said she believes beach tag prices will be “way out of control” if Council gives the proposed increase final approval.

“I think we really should rethink it. There has to be a better way,” she said.

Ocean City has had beach tags since 1976 and they are required from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Beach tag revenue covers the cost of keeping the beaches clean, employing lifeguards, hiring summer police officers and paying for the city’s share of beach replenishment projects in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, told Council that the city must increase the price for beach tags because “the huge cost” for protecting, maintaining and cleaning the resort’s seven-mile coastline has been increasing.

Donato said there is added pressure on the city to raise beach tag prices because of significant increases that will show up in the 2023 operating budget for other municipal expenses, including trash collection.

“There are a lot of increased costs coming our way, particularly in next year’s budget,” he said.

Ocean City is currently at the low end of beach tag fees among the shore towns in Atlantic and Cape May counties, Donato said.

City officials have held off raising the price for years, Donato said. The price for seasonal tags last went up in 2011, while weekly fees have not been increased since 2007 and daily beach badges have been the same since 2002.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve adjusted the pricing,” Donato said.

Donato called the tags a “user fee” because it is paid by people who only go to the beach.

“Therefore, the people going to the beach are the people paying for the beach,” he said.

Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, explains the proposed beach tag price increase to Council.

Donato noted that beach fees save Ocean City property owners the expense of maintaining and cleaning the beaches through the local taxes they pay.

Councilwoman Karen Bergman said she would much rather have beachgoers pay for the cost of maintaining and cleaning the beaches than local taxpayers.

“I think it’s about time and overdue,” Bergman said while joining the other Council members in supporting the proposed increase in beach fees.

Councilman Terry Crowley Jr. called the proposed increase a “fair compromise.”

Even with the increase, Ocean City’s beach tag fees will still be lower or in line with those at other shore towns in Atlantic and Cape May counties,” Councilman Tom Rotondi said.

Donato said some Council members had asked him prior to Thursday’s meeting about the possibility of having a “locals discount” for the price of beach tags. But Donato explained that the New Jersey administrative code does not allow municipalities to discriminate between residents and nonresidents in setting the price of beach tags.

Overall, beach tag sales generate about $4 million in annual revenue for Ocean City. In 2021, Ocean City had an all-time high of $4.2 million in beach tag revenue during a blockbuster summer following a surge in tourism as the COVID-19 pandemic began to wane. Revenue fell just short of $4 million in 2022, Donato said.

Donato explained that the proposed price increase in beach tags is expected to generate $5.2 million to $5.3 million in annual revenue.

“It’s going to take a year or so to realize the revenue potential of this,” he told Council.

City Council will hold a public hearing and take a final vote on the plan to raise beach fees at the Oct. 20 meeting.