Without Evidence But Plenty of Cash, Palm Coast Approves 52 Spy Cameras, Up from 10
FlaglerLive | August 22, 2012
It was another remarkable meeting of the Palm Coast City Council for how few critical questions council members asked about a matter impacting most residents, and how much the issue was either mischaracterized by the city’s own administration or how little the result rested on evidence. Yet in the end, the Palm Coast City Council approved having up to 52 red-light, spy-and-snap cameras at city intersections, up from the 10 that have been operating for the past several years.
Expect at least 36 of those cameras to be in place by year’s end, according to an official with American Traffic Solutions, the Tempe, Arizona-based private company that operates the cameras and pockets most of the money they generate, after the state has taken its cut.
It’s a money game. City Manager Jim Landon and some council members said the city would make very little money from the deal. That’s not true: the city would have made very little money had its stuck with the 10 cameras, or approved adding only a few. But the way it wrote the contract with ATS, the more cameras are installed, the more money the city makes, because the city is guaranteed $700 a month per camera. That means its revenue from the cameras by year’s end will be guaranteed to jump from a maximum of what would have been $7,000 a month (barely enough to cover the city’s costs) to $25,200, a substantial monthly revenue that, annualized, would yield the city just over $300,000. ATS is “studying” the installation of 16 more cameras, which the council also approved on Tuesday. Added to the mix, the city would then reap a $36,400 monthly windfall, or $437,000 a year.
Adding cameras is neither tied to crash data nor to need, but, at most, to a mix of perceptions that drivers are—in Mayor Jon Netts’s description—misbehaving, and of “push-pin” data that goes no further than the Palm Coast Fire department showing where its service calls are concentrated. Council member Frank Meeker asked specifically for the data that would support an expansion of the camera network.
“Do we have the data that matches up with all of the new locations justifying the need for these cameras? Have we seen that?” Meeker asked.
“Have we seen it? Council, no,” Netts said. “I have not. As you recall we asked staff to go back, consult with the sheriff’s department, fire department. To get their input, and this is the result of their input.”
But it was “anecdotal,” not evidence-based. Studies that combine traffic patterns and crash data and analysis and account for numerous variables to be reliably scientific, and therefore believable, are few and expensive: the city has no such studies. Indeed, the evidence on traffic cameras across the country is generally contradictory, making it easy to cherry-pick conclusions without seeing direct correlations between cameras and either improved safety or reduced crashes: Palm Coast’s own raw data of traffic incidents (which have not been analyzed beyond that point) at or near traffic intersections show incident declines at intersections with and without cameras, just as traffic citations have declined in the last several years. A correlation between cameras’ presence and reduced crashes would be tempting, but false. Landon conceded as much on Tuesday.
“The data correlation between the intersections itself and the data isn’t real good,” he said. “Our fire department did bring in an aerial that actually had a dot for every time they responded to a location, and what you’re seeing is many of those dots up there are where there were clusters.”
Landon then diverted the discussion to an unrelated matter: cameras allow law enforcement to determine whose fault an accident may have been, which has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with insurance claims or the assessment of fines and citations. “That’s the other part of the discussion,” Landon said.
Meeker wasn’t buying it. “I’m looking for the data that was used to come to this conclusion, and what I think you’re telling me you really don’t have it because the fire department’s data is computerized, it’s push-pins on a board.”
Council members had previously asked that the sheriff’s office generate more reliable crash data. That hasn’t been done. Landon said the fire department would generate such data, though Netts cautioned against both agencies ending up generating two sets of data. The fire department, of course, is neither equipped nor responsible for analyzing crash scenes and determining causes. Its paramedics treat patients at the scene and leave, leaving the rest of the work either to the sheriff’s office or to the Florida Highway Patrol. That was not talked about Tuesday. Another difficulty of generating cogent data: some crashes are investigated by the sheriff’s office, some crashes—and all of the more serious crashes—are investigated by the Florida Highway Patrol. Merging that data would require time and resources that neither side has. That, too, was not talked about Tuesday.
Despite those doubts, and despite acknowledging the “George Orwell” effect of the proliferation of cameras, Meeker joined Netts, Bill McGuire and Bill Lewis in approving the expansion. Only Jason DeLorenzo voted against.
The main attraction of the cameras for both the cash-strapped city and ATS is money. When the state approved a regulated system of spy-and-snap cameras, it ended a multiplicity of schemes such as Palm, Coast’s where cities were using cameras as cash cows, in part by circumventing state law. Palm Coast was cashing in on almost $1 million a year at the height of the scheme. When the state passed a law regulating the system, it allowed cities to continue the system, but it imposed uniform fines, regulations and restrictions. The fines would be set at $158. The state would automatically get $78 of that, leaving it to cities to figure out how they’d split the remaining cash between themselves and the companies running the cameras.
In Palm Coast, the city and ATS wrangled for months over a new contract, finally setting on terms that, at first, appeared to leave Palm Coast with pennies. The agreement’s limited revenue was deceiving, however, because it included a provision that gave ATS the right to increase the number of cameras indefinitely. That wasn’t just to increase ATS’s cash take, but Palm Coast’s, too, as the arrangement showed.
The way the contract is written, the city makes a flat $700 per month on each camera regardless, but ATS takes every penny that camera generates after that, up to $4,250 per camera. Should the camera generate more than that, then the additional revenue will go to the city. But for that to happen, a single camera would have to snap off more than 66 times successfully—that is, nail a driver 66 times after errors or other issues are accounted for. Only two camera out of 10 locations have managed to exceed that number in the past two years, and even then, just barely: one got 71 citations, another got 70—not the sort of numbers that would increase the city’s take by much. The rest of the locations saw citations range between a low of three to 60. ATS, however, stands to gain the most from the new scheme, even as Palm Coast pockets a far larger share than it’s been getting with just 10 cameras.
Meanwhile, the courts are still wrestling with the legality of those schemes, and so far have split their verdicts, with some calling the schemes unconstitutional and others calling them legal. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the Florida Supreme Court to settle the issue, with potentially costly results for Palm Coast: should the schemes be found unconstitutional, not only would the city lose an immediate source of revenue, but it could, in a worst-case scenario, have to pay back drivers who’d been fined previously.
Few people addressed the council before its vote Tuesday. One resident, a long-time opponent of the cameras, said, referring to the cameras and Goldman Sachs, which backs ATS: “There are a couple of people that really do appreciate them. That’s the taxpayers in Cincinnati, where the holding company is where they collect your money, and the company in Tempe, Arizona, who collects the money. But the city of Palm Coast isn’t making money on these things. The city of Palm Coast is just pissing off a lot of people.”