Taxpayers can "no longer shoulder the burden" of paying for beach maintenance, Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said.
"This question comes up every year for us . . . whether to charge a beach fee. Taxpayers already pay a beach fee through their taxes. It's time to share the burden," he said after the commission's unanimous vote.
The city has been exploring endeavors to pay for lifeguards, police patrols, and beach cleaning and rebuilding, including monster truck shows, concerts, and a much-disputed campground. None has worked out, in part because of lawsuits and protests.
"The rising costs for quality beaches and seasonal staffing is being felt by the city's property owners," City Commissioner Pete Byron said.
The decision comes as the state Assembly is considering a bill to ban beach tags in any Shore town that accepts public funding to make repairs or clean up after Hurricane Sandy. It is unclear whether Wildwood would receive any federal storm assistance.
Resorts pummeled by Sandy - Belmar in Monmouth County and Margate in Atlantic County among them - have considered raising beach tag fees to help pay for repairs to their mangled beaches. Both have tabled the idea, at least for now.
Beach town officials have vowed to fight the tag-ban legislation cosponsored last month by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and State Rep. Michael Doherty (R., Warren), saying it does not consider the costs towns incur annually to maintain beaches.
As for Wildwood's plan to institute a beach fee for the first time, the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority said in a statement Friday that it did not support the measure because it "would not be advantageous to our overall tourism economy."
Authority officials also noted Wildwood would forfeit about $425,000 a year it receives through the agency from 50 percent of a special 1.85 percent tourism tax collected in Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest. When the Legislature created the tax in 2003, it decreed that beaches would remain free and that if any municipality imposed beach fees, it would forfeit the money.
John Siciliano, executive director of the authority, could not be reached for comment.
Some residents and business owners oppose the idea.
"I don't think it would be good to do this at this time with the way the economy is right now. A lot of people come to Wildwood because the beach is free, so it's a big selling point for this town. Why drive people away now?" wondered resident Sal Gittone, 61, whose family owns a pizzeria on the Wildwood boardwalk.
Commissioner Anthony Leonetti called the move a "significant proposal" for the city. "We firmly believe this important decision is one that the community wants to participate in . . .. We hope property owners see it as beneficial to the city."
Troiano noted the city had received recognition and a number of awards for its beaches over the years, including being voted among the best family beaches by the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium and being included in the Travel Channel's list of America's best beaches.
"We are extremely proud of our beaches and the experiences they provide beachgoers. . . . We want to strive to maintain the highest quality for both our residents and visitors," he said.
Officials in North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest said they had no plans to join Wildwood's beach-tag foray.
Besides the Wildwoods, the only other free beach in Cape May County is Strathmere in Upper Township. In Atlantic County, Atlantic City has a free beach.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at ww.philly.com/downashore.