CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE, N.J. - Thanks to the bad economy, the price of beach tags - the scourge of many Jersey Shore visitors - won't go up in most coastal towns this summer.
In one Ocean County resort, day-trippers' beach access will even be cheaper than last year.
But to Louise Albert, none of that matters.
Albert is among a small army of disabled Cape May County residents who depend on the production of the tags to enrich their lives.
"It feels good to have a purpose, to know that you're doing something productive," said Albert, 40, a resident of the Villas section of Lower Township, who joined the tag-manufacturing program eight months ago. "Coming here has been a big step for me."
About 90 people with developmental and physical disabilities report nearly year-round to the Jersey Cape Diagnostic, Training and Opportunity Center Inc. in the Crest Haven complex in the Cape May Court House section of Middle Township.
The center produces about 95 percent of the badges sold by towns to help offset the cost of maintaining beaches. (Atlantic City and the Wildwoods are exceptions, boasting free access.) A seasonal badge averages $20, with weeklies costing around $10 and dailies about $5.
Cutting the vinyl tags, inserting pins, and packing the badges is virtually the only sustained employment available to many handicapped workers in Cape May County, where the 15 percent unemployment rate is the highest in the state, said George J. Plewa, executive director of the center.
"We have no industry here, no factories, so the most important thing about this program is that it fulfills a very important need for these clients," Plewa said.
The center, which receives funding from the county and the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, doesn't gauge its success by profits, he said.
"We don't want to lose money, but our main goal is to provide opportunity for people to produce a product - beach tags, which are something that everyone can relate to - and at the same time learn the skills to maybe move into another job," Plewa said.
Workers, most of whom receive government assistance, are paid according to the number of badges they complete. They may come in a few days a week and take home a few dollars or put in five days and work quickly enough to make hundreds of dollars.
The 25-year-old program provides training and instruction on how to behave in a workplace, Plewa said.
Besides beach tags, the center makes badges for pools, parks, and resorts. It also has produced the vinyl tags for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service programs, Plewa said. Total output is about three million badges annually.
In the center's main workroom, clients spend about 51/2 hours a day at long tables where they remove the tags from vinyl strips. Each of the badges - designed and printed by a Jersey Cape staff member - is assigned a serial number that helps the center and towns track the valuable inventory.
The 3,000 tags in a carton can fetch up to $60,000 when sold by a town. For security reasons, boxes are shrink-wrapped before they leave the facility, production manager Edward Willson said.
"I'd worked in private industry before coming here, and I never realized the value of a program like this," he said. "There are people who come here every day that enjoy having a place to go and a purpose. . . . When we have a holiday, they're sad. It's no holiday for them because they like the structure and camaraderie."
Ocean City has gotten its beach badges from the Jersey Cape Diagnostic Center for years, said Jim Rutala, the town's business administrator.
"There are alternatives and other businesses that can do the job, but we're committed to working with them because they do such a great job and it's a really wonderful program," he said.
Ocean City, like other Cape May County resorts, decided not to raise beach fees this year because of the struggling economy, Rutala said. Preseason sales, which are up over last year, discount the $20 seasonal rate by $5. The price break ends May 31; badges are required on the beach starting Memorial Day weekend.
Weekly tags in Ocean City will remain $10 and daily access $5. Prices are similar in Sea Isle City, Avalon, Stone Harbor, and Cape May.
"People are looking for value and are looking for ways to stretch their dollars," Rutala said. "We want people to come back to Ocean City, so we haven't raised anything - beach tags, parking, anything. And we've added new, free events to get more people here."
Long Beach Island towns, including Beach Haven and Ship Bottom, said last month that they wouldn't raise their fees, either. Surf City reduced its daily fee from $8 to $7 even though it added a hologram to its badges to deter the counterfeiting that swept the beach there last summer.
In Atlantic County, Brigantine, Ventnor, and Margate have not raised rates, and Margate will offer a free beach day once a week. Neighboring Ventnor is considering the same move.
Longport has raised its preseason price from $14 to $15 for a badge that is good from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But it is offering the discount until June 28, four weeks longer than usual, after which the tags will be $30.
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.