As the Palm Coast City Council was about to approve its new red-light camera ordinance last week, council member Bill Lewis said dryly: “It appears to me that we’re becoming toll takers.” He was more right than he knew.
The $125 per ticket Palm Coast has been generating from its 10 cameras at several intersections around the city — netting $1.7 million from 20,219 citations issued since 2008 — is about to vanish or be reduced to very small amounts even though the cameras will not go away. American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based company running the cameras, will still make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. So will state government. But the money will speed out of Palm Coast at the city’s expense and that of its residents.
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If until now the city could justify the ticket costs by re-investing most of the money in resident services locally, it can no longer do that. The city is not just a toll-taker for ATS and Tallahassee: the traffic cameras ensure that more than $1 million a year will be siphoned out of the local economy, to those Arizona shareholders or Tallahassee treasurers.
Two new related factors are resulting in the costly consequence Palm Coast never intended, but is stuck with–unless it gets rid of the cameras: A new state law regulates how those spy-and-snap cameras may be used. And the contract being renegotiated between ATS and the city will inevitably heavily favor ATS simply because the company owns and runs the cameras, and won’t keep them here unless it makes a handsome profit (Goldman Sachs is one of ATS’ shareholders).
To keep the cameras, and by law, the city will have to pay ATS a steep flat fee, replacing the $40-per-ticket fee the company was being paid until June 30. The new contract between ATS and Palm Coast is still being negotiated. But the way ATS has it for now, it would cost Palm Coast more than $570,000 just to keep the system running.
The new contract between the city and ATS was supposed to have been worked out by now, in line with the new state law regulating such cameras. But Palm Coast isn’t satisfied with the rate structure ATS is demanding, so the negotiations continue. Should the two sides agree on a new rate, the city council will have its first look at the new contract most likely on July 27, and vote on it for the first time at its August 3 meeting. The council so far is not considering scrapping the cameras despite the fact that the local economy, if not the city itself, will lose money on the deal.
ATS is presenting Palm Coast with three options. The first would charge $4,750 per camera per month, not including a $4 certified mail surcharge to process each ticket. A second option would charge between $3,750 and $5,750 per camera, per month, depending on the number of lanes the camera is scanning. A camera installed on a two-lane road, for example, would cost $3,750 per month. A camera installed on a five-lane road, as at the Palm Coast Parkway intersection with Cypress Parkway and Boulder Rock, would cost $5,750 per month. Most of Palm Coast’s 10 cameras are at four-lane intersections, which would cost $4,750 per camera. The $4 per ticket mailing fee would also be extra.
A third option, which the city is not considering, would charge $2,750 per camera in addition to a slew of individual costs “for individual work elements for each ticket”–a provision that appears to skirt the law’s prohibition of charging per-ticket fees.
Whichever option Palm Coast goes for would wipe out most of the cash it was generating from the operation. The money was going into its road-improvement fund, which pays for such things as resurfacing (fresh evidence of which happens to be on segments of roads scanned by the spy-and-snap cameras).
Last year, Palm Coast took in $906,000 from citations generated by the 10 cameras, before paying ATS its $40-per-ticket fee. But that was when Palm Coast could charge $125, from which it paid ATS the $40 per-ticket fee. Palm Coast was left with $85 per ticket. The city generated $241,000 from fewer cameras when they were first installed in 2008. It has generated $558,300 so far this year.
Those were the good times. They were also, by at least one south Florida circuit judge’s ruling last February, the illegal times.
State law forbade spy-and-snap cameras. The Department of Transportation was not allowed to have any, nor were local police agencies allowed to install them on city streets or county roads. Two dozen cities did so anyway, skirting the law by making them part of their code enforcement apparatus. Traffic tickets were issued entirely outside law enforcement’s or the Department of Transportation’s purview. Complaints and lawsuits multiplied, especially as cities in Florida and elsewhere took to installing traffic cameras to generate cash. Evidence that the cameras either reduce crashes or improve traffic safety is contradictory at best.
Last spring the Florida Legislature wrote a law allowing red-light cameras, but also regulating them to end their use as cash generators for cities or counties. The new law, which went into effect on July 1, makes all traffic citation fines from red-light running uniform, at $158. But $75 of that must go to the state, reducing a local government’s initial take to $83. And Palm Coast will have to pay ATS from that amount to keep the system running. So if the city and the company came to an arrangement that kept up ATS’ take at the equivalent of roughly $40 a ticket, Palm Coast would be left with less than half what it was taking in before.
Even that is not likely to be the case, because the new state law has made rigging spy-and-snap traffic cameras to generate as many tickets as possible difficult. For example, while many drivers have been cited for not coming to a full stop before making a right turn on red, the new law explicitly forbids those traffic citations–at least by cities and private companies. A live law enforcement officer may still write a traffic citation if he or she observes a driver blatantly turning on red without prudence. But a city’s code-enforcement type traffic camera operators may not. Palm Coast has claimed that it re-calibrated the cameras to take prudence into account, as the new state law requires, long before that new law. But many drivers have complained before the council that they’d turned prudently and still been cited.
Not only is the city’s discretion severely reduced when making those judgment calls: it no longer has its own hearing officers to hear appeals from drivers who’ve been cited. The new law requires all appeals to go through the county court system. That eliminates another conflict of interest that skimmed the gutters of propriety: the city, which made money from those citations, paid its own hearing officer to hear appeals resulting from those citations. If many drivers successfully dispute city citations in county court, the city’s income will fall further.
In its negotiations with ATS, the city wants to ensure that it remains at least at a break-even point. But if the number of citations falls, the flat fee owed ATS won’t, and the city may be looking at a loss–having to pay ATS from other sources, likely the property-tax supported general revenue fund, to make up the difference. Should that ever happen, look for a small revolt not only from drivers, who have their issues with the spy-and-snap cameras, from tax-payers as well. Or from people who happen to fit both categories.