Palm Coast’s plan to install red-light spy-and-snap cameras along State Road 100 has run into a serious obstacle. It’s not insurmountable. But to get around it, the city—or the company running the spy-camera system—may have to spend more money than either planned.
The reason: the traffic-light system belongs to the state Department of Transportation. But it’s maintained by Flagler County’s maintenance department. The actual infrastructure of the system is under the county’s jurisdiction. That means the electricity that runs the system is under the county’s jurisdiction. To plug into that electricity, Palm Coast and American Traffic Solutions, or ATS (the company running the spy-camera system for Palm Coast) must have the county’s permission.
The county ain’t giving it.
On Nov. 21, Robert Zaitooni, a design and engineering manager with ATS, wrote County Engineer Faith Alkhatib to “please provide us with an e-mail or a letter affirming your approval” of ATS’s use of county-maintained infrastructure at the traffic lights. “We are proposing to use the existing signal power pedestal as the power source and the existing conduits and pull boxes when it is available,” he added. “We ask that you provide us a letter on county letter head to confirm your concurrence with the use of the existing infrastructure.” He attached a draft letter that the county could then print on its own letterhead.
Alkhatib found it unnecessary. In September, the Flagler County Commission voted 4-1 to send a letter to the Palm Coast City Council, asking it to reconsider the city’s plan to install spy cameras along 100. Writing for the commission, Barbara Revels said that numerous residents had written commissioners of their objections to be subjected to the cameras. She said the cameras would alienate shoppers and tourists at a time when the county is developing a more welcoming image to business and tourism, with 100 as one of the main arteries into and out of the county.
The city council ridiculed the letter and pressed on with the plan to install the cameras. At the time, the council was unaware of the state regulation requiring the local government maintaining traffic signals to give permission to use its infrastructure. The county, apparently, was not aware of that regulation, either. Its revelation, by way of ATS, was however a welcome surprise.
On Thursday, Alkhatib sent the transportation department the county commission’s letter opposing the installation of spy cameras on SR100. “As a result,” the county engineer wrote to DOT, “as staff we cannot authorize the cameras, use of any infrastructure, or agree to anything that would otherwise further the installation of these cameras per the board’s guidance.” That is, the board of county commissioners.
Craig Coffey, the county administrator, circulated the correspondence to county commissioners and asked them if they wanted to discuss the matter at their Dec. 19 meeting. Commissioners could overrule the staff and grant ATS and Palm Coast access to the infrastructure. But that’s not likely, given the commission’s vote in September.
“There’s a possibility that they can use other hardware. They would have to build it themselves,” Sally Sherman, the county’s deputy administrator, said today of ATS. “They have not said what they intend to do. I think the next step for them is to take it to the city of Palm Coast for their response.”
In August, the Palm Coast City Council decided to expand the number of its red-light spy cameras from 10 to 52. The city would thus increase its profits from the scheme from about $23,000 a year to over $300,000, with ATS, a private, Arizona-based company, running the system, as it has since its adoption locally in 2007.
Palm Coast’s take is guaranteed: every camera location is to generate a minimum of $700 per month, whether people run enough red lights to generate the revenue or not. So the more cameras installed, the more money Palm Coast is guaranteed.
But for ATS to make money, each camera must generate more than 10 enforceable citations per month, or more than $1,580 in fines, because only then—after deducting Palm Coast’s $700, and the state’s share of $83 per citation—can ATS cash in on its own revenue, and that’s before its own expenses. For the system to work profitably for the company, it must have lucrative cameras. It can only have lucrative cameras at intersections where many people run red lights, and where traffic is high.
There are only so many intersections of the sort in Palm Coast.
That’s why the city and ATS decided to install the spy cameras along one of the most trafficked arteries in the county: State Road 100.
The swath of SR100 from east of Old Kings Road to just west of Belle Terre Parkway is all within Palm Coast’s boundaries. Even though it’s a state road, Palm Coast has the authority to install spy cameras at those interchanges.
Palm Coast City Council members have maintained the pretense that the cameras are about safety. But beyond anecdotal reports, Palm Coast has no evidence that traffic-light safety has been a serious issue in the city, nor has it conducted a study to have solid evidence one way or the other. Evidence about the effectiveness of spy cameras as means that enhance safety is also scant, with conflicting studies. Where cameras are installed, rear-end crashes tend to increase while t-boning decreases, but the overall safety factor enhancement, when found, negligible.
What is indisputable is that when there were just 10 cameras around town, Palm Coast was no longer making money. Just as indisputable is the fact that the more cameras are installed, the more money Palm Coast stands to make.
Palm Coast’s profitability plummeted since the state stepped in and regulated all such spy camera installations, while requiring a uniform fine. The state also took its cut of $83 from each such $158 fine. Previously, Palm Coast and other cities that had installed cameras pocketed the whole amount, splitting it only with the companies that ran the system. But the legality of that system, before the state regulated it, is in question.
State regulation severely reduced the profitability of spy cameras, as it did in Palm Coast. Legal challenges to the cameras have also multiplied, and the Florida Supreme Court will be ruling on their legality before the state’s imposition of uniform regulations two years ago. That decision isn’t expected to affect the system currently in place in Palm Coast, since it complies with state law. But for that system to make money, its cameras must be active on arteries such as State Road 100. Whether cameras will be installed there is now in question.