Who Should Tend the Beaches?

June 27, 2014
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BEACH-umbrella-jogger-IMG_4667By John Burton

FREEHOLD – County freeholders say they don’t want to run the beaches.

The freeholders are voicing strong opposition to matching bills in the Senate and Assembly that would allow the county government – on a totally volunteer basis – to take over responsibility for operating the county’s bay and oceanfront beaches.

Bill 2171, currently in the Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee, and its companion, Bill A1596 in the Assembly, would allow county government in Atlantic, Monmouth, Ocean and Cape May counties to assume control and responsibility for public beaches, regulate beach-badge fees and have a uniform policy over the beaches.

Freeholder Deputy Director Gary J. Rich Sr. spoke about the freehold board’s opposition to having municipalities relinquish local control of centralizing operations.

“Beach communities are very capable of operating their beaches,” Rich said. “They’ve been doing it very effectively for a long time.”

State Senator Bob Smith, D-Middlesex, Somerset, who chairs the environment and energy committee, said he sponsored the bill because what “we’re trying to do is give our beach towns another tool at their disposal, to streamline their services, through shared services and reduce their costs.

“Nobody is forcing anybody to do anything,” he stressed. “This is completely permissive,” allowing communities and counties to say no thanks, if they wish.

Monmouth County has 27 miles of oceanfront and 26 miles of bayfront beaches. County officials worry about what taking on the added cost and responsibility managing those 53 miles would mean.

The county currently operates Seven Presidents Park, a public oceanfront beach in Long Branch, with about a mile of beach and that costs the county about $1 million annually to operate. County officials said, in a letter distributed to media outlets, the county “lacks the resources and staffing needed to adequately expand and address year-round beach operations and maintenance along the entire bay and oceanfront.”

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If the bill becomes law and the county and towns decide to opt out, Smith said, “You should explain to your citizens why it’s better to maintain your own program.”

Rich is a Spring Lake resident. His experience as a borough council member in that beach community has taught him “from an operational standpoint, local is always better,” because of the towns’ experience, existing equipment and the state’s tradition of home rule.

The bill contains language indicating the intention is to create a uniform policy countywide for beaches, standardize beach badge costs, create an economy of scale and allow one entity to be responsible for bonding and budgets with the counties operating the beaches as a public utility.

Many coastal states have counties oversee the beaches, Smith said.

Monmouth Beach Mayor Susan Howard echoed the county’s objections.

“We are absolutely opposed to this,” she said.

The Monmouth Beach Commission, its three-member governing body, adopted a resolution last year opposing the measure when it was first brought up in the Legislature and planned to offer a resolution against it again, Howard said.

The last legislative session’s bills were tabled and died, due to initial objections from county administrators and some municipal officials, Smith said.

Rich said Monmouth Beach’s sentiments are shared by many officials in the county’s shorefront communities.

However, Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long, who said she wasn’t fully up to speed on the bills, said “given all the discussion of consolation of services,” as cost saving measures, “it’s an idea worth exploring.”

Rich and Howard said they were at a loss as to what is hoped to be gained by this proposal.

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“I can’t say what the motivation is,” Rich said.

If state legislators think this might be a way to tap into additional revenue that towns make from the beaches, both Rich and Howard said they are sorely mistaken.

“At the end of the day we don’t make any money on it,” Rich said of Spring Lake.

Howard said her municipality always hopes to “break even” when considering the costs of operating the beaches and revenue generated by daily or seasonal beach badges.

Administrators from the four counties have been expressing the same objections, leaving Smith a little flummoxed because he believes it would be a benefit.  “It amazes me. I’ve never seen local government act so violently for something they are not required to do,” Smith said.

The Senate plans on conducting a special shore session on July 21 in Toms River, where the bill will be discussed and, “hopefully give people an opportunity to express their views, how to make it better or what the problem is,” Smith said.

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