By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Leaders of the popular Jersey shore spot Wildwood are considering changing a tradition that has existed forever -- free beaches.
According to the city's mayor, Ernie Troiano Jr., some 9 to 12 million visitors trudge across Wildwood's sands each summer without buying a beach tag, a familiar fixture in many other Jersey shore towns.
By comparison, nearby Ocean City charges $5 for a daily tag, $10 for a weekly tag, and $25 for a season pass.
It costs Wildwood about $1.5 million per season to pay lifeguards and pick up trash left daily on the coastline, Troiano said.
"We pick up tons and tons of debris off the beaches," said Troiano, listing plastic bottles, paper cups and diapers among the more common bits of trash.
In his heart, he doesn't think the blue-collar community should charge for beach tags but the city's taxpayers end up footing the bill for modern problems like litter, he said. Many elderly taxpayers who get little benefit from the beach feel the burden, he said.
Troiano, 60, is particularly sensitive to those concerns since he was recalled from office about 18 months ago because, he said, taxpayers wanted the city to find more sources of revenue. However, he won the office again in May.
"The tradition is that it has been free," said the on-again, off-again mayor who is not sure whether he'll move ahead with the beach tag idea.
"I'm on the fence. I need to see what the pros and cons are," he said.
Certainly beach tags would be unpopular with business and hotel-motel owners out of fear they would dissuade visitors from coming to the town, now heavily marketed for its free beaches, said Ben Rose, marketing director for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism and Improvement Authority.
Both the mayor of neighboring Wildwood Crest, Carl Groon, and the assistant administrator of nearby North Wildwood, Lou Blasco, said they had no plans to charge for beach access.
"At this time, we are not considering beach tags at all," Blasco said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)