One of the most anticipated cases of the last few years–questioning the legality of red-light traffic cameras is scheduled for oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court at 9 a.m. next Thursday (Nov. 7). Regardless of the outcome of the case, two things will not change: Palm Coast’s 43 red-light cameras will not go away. And Palm Coast will continue to get robbed of the majority of the revenue generated by the cameras, with the state and the private company running the cameras taking out of the local economy more than seven times the amounts coming into the city’s coffers.
Despite the lopsided numbers, the cameras’ unpopularity with the public and their blighting effect on the city’s image, a majority of the Palm Coast City Council continues to defend the system.
In September, the cameras generated a total of $255,740 in fines, what would work out to an annual total of $3 million. Of the monthly total, the state took $131,555. American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based private company that runs the system for Palm Coast, took $94,085. Palm Coast was left with just $30,100, some of which goes toward administering the system and paying for the city’s magistrate, before whom drivers disputing red-light tickets may appear.
In sum, the local economy stands to lose $2.7 million a year. Residents pay federal and state taxes that also send far larger amounts out of the economy. The siphoning of red-light camera dollars out of the economy is distinctive in one particular way, however: it is being done by the city council’s choice, rather than by legal imposition (as with state and federal taxes). The city council in other words–which claims to make economic development a priority–is exclusively responsible for letting those dollars out of the local economy.
Only one city council member–Jason DeLoranzo–has been making that point at the council, as he did in early September, to no avail. “We’re sending $2.5 to $3 million out of our economy every year with these citations,” DeLorenzo said. “We’re sending more than half of it to the state and the rest to a company in Arizona. And maybe we’re doing good things with the money that we’re keeping here, but that’s a lot of money to lose from our economy every year.”
The city issued a report showing red-light revenue and breakdowns for the past 12 months. The report includes six months when fewer than 43 cameras were in place, and when the contract between ATS and Palm Coast was set up differently, so revenue amounts were much lower then. But even with the addition of four times as many cameras as when they were first installed in 2008, the city is making far less than it did back then—in part because state law changed, forcing cities to abide by strict standards of how much citations may cost and who gets what shares.
The new system, in place since a state law called the Mark Wandall Act went in effect in July 2010, lowered local governments’ take and produced new revenue for the state. The state by law gets $82 out of every $158 ticket. Palm Coast’s revenue tumbled—until it worked out a new contract with ATS, multiplying the number of cameras to make u0p for some of the lost revenue. That revenue did not start flowing in until April.
City Council member Dave Ferguson was curious at a meeting earlier this week about those revenue figures, which for Palm Coast went from around $7,000 a month previously to $30,100 monthly now. The reason: Palm Coast nets $700 per camera per month regardless. That works out to a guaranteed $361,000 a year.
Other council members, abetted by City Manager Jim Landon, were again inaccurate in one regard, however: they claimed that the city does not stand to make extra money, the more tickets are issued.
“Now we’re getting a flat amount per camera, whether it gives one ticket or 100,000 tickets,” Mayor Jon Netts said.
“It doesn’t matter how many citations are issued,” Landon said.
That’s not quite true. By contract, the city makes its flat $700 fee for every camera, then ATS takes the next $4,250 per camera (after the state’s share has been deducted). But any net revenue above that amount, when averaged out among all 43 cameras, goes to the city. For that to happen, the system would have to generate double the amount of tickets it’s generating now. That’s not likely at the moment. But Palm Coast is going on the assumption that the city will itself double in population in coming years. If the cameras stay in place (the contract with ATS does not run out until 2017), or if state law changes—as it has almost every year in cameras’ regard—to make citations easier to issue, Palm Coast would stand to cash in more.
None of those issues have anything to do with the case going before the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday. That case relates to the way cities like Palm Coast ran their spy cameras before July 2010, before the Mark Wandall Act went in effect, and before state law explicitly allowed local governments to use traffic cameras as traffic regulation devices.
Many drivers cited under the old system argued that the cameras were illegal, since state law did not allow them. Palm Coast and other governments got around the prohibition by classifying their cameras under code enforcement, rather than law enforcement. Drivers sued. Palm Coast, too, was sued. Cases were decided either way: some courts sided with local governments, arguing that state law did not pre-empt them from installing traffic cameras, other courts sided with drivers, arguing that state law did indeed pre-empt local governments. The signal decisions were a pro-camera opinion by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, and an anti-camera decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court will have the final word.
ATS has already settled innumerable lawsuits with plaintiffs, reimbursing a share of their tickets’ costs. ATS settled its part of the lawsuit against Palm Coast. Palm Coast chose not to settle, and therefore has a direct stake in the decision before the Supreme Court. But that decision will not affect tickets issued after July 2010—only tickets issued before the state law went in effect.
Council member Bill McGuire on Tuesday wanted to know specifically “the upside and the downside of that decision,” once rendered. Bill Reischmann, the city attorney, filled him in. The upside—for the city, not for drivers—is that if the Supreme Court sides with local governments, the case goes away, and the tickets issued before 2010 become a moot point. If the court sides with drivers, then the law suit against Palm Coast moves forward, and the city will likely have to issue reimbursements to drivers ticketed under the old system. Netts called that “the absolute worst-case scenario,” at least for the city.
Drivers may see it differently. But again: however the Supreme Court rules, there will be no changes to Palm Coast’s existing red-light cameras, at least until 2017. Or unless state law changes: in September, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, filed a bill (SB 144) to abolish red-light cameras statewide. Similar legislative initiatives have failed in recent years.