If you got a red-light camera ticket before July 2010 in palm Coast and are wondering whether you’ll get your money back, keep wondering.
The Palm Coast City Council’s attorney and its city manager Tuesday morning both addressed the outcome of the Florida Supreme Court decision last week that ruled Palm Coast’s and other Florida cities’ pre-2010 red-light camera schemes illegal. Remarkably, council members kept entirely silent about their actions leading to the institution the illegal program. So did the city manager and the attorney.
Bill Reischmann, the attorney, instead laid out arguments that could keep Palm Coast from having to pay back any or most of the $1.2 million it took in before July 2010, when a state law went into effect, allowing local governments to run red-light camera schemes but also standardizing the system and its forms of payments.
Beyond those arguments, Palm Coast government is still more confused and uncertain than clear-eyed on how to proceed next, preferring to wait and see how other cities and courts will decide the matter. “Moving forward as far as how we dispose of these, I simply would suggest that we’re going to need to take our time and see what happens with some of these other cases,” Reischmann said.
But City Manager Jim Landon said that even if the city had to repay the money, “the community won’t see any impact, it definitely won’t raise any taxes, it’s just a matter of adjusting our capital improvement plan.”
Two legal arguments, or defenses, weigh in Palm Coast’s favor and against paying back the money.
The first is that even though Palm Coast faces a lawsuit regarding the red-light cameras similar to those faced by the two cities that led to the Supreme Court decision (Orlando and Aventura), there is no “class certification” in that case. That is, the law suit pertains to a single individual, not to a class of individuals who got ticketed. Orlando is making that argument, Reischmann said, suggesting that Palm Coast could make it, too. (American Traffic Solutions, the private company that runs Palm Coast’s red-light camera scheme, chose to settle its portion of the lawsuit, however, and gave all ticketed drivers an opportunity to get a refund of a portion of their fine. Reischmann did not mention the ATS settlement and pay-outs.)
“There is no class certification in the city of Orlando. There’s no class certification in the city of Aventura,” Reischmann said. “And there’s other jurisdictions that are still in the same situation including but not limited to the city of Palm Coast. There’s no class certification here.” He added: “Yes, there is precedent coming out of Florida Supreme Court, but it would impact that one case, that one individual, that one ticket.”
The second argument is that drivers who “voluntarily” paid their fine before July 2010 gave up the right to subsequently contest the fine, even if it was illegally imposed. Reischmann explained: “When someone makes a voluntary payment, that’s what it’s called, the voluntary payment defense, when someone makes a voluntary payment and does not appeal, this is against local governments, and later on there’s a decision that changes the basis for that underlying wrongdoing, that at that point in time that person that made that voluntary payment can’t come in and sue to get their money back. So what the city of Orlando has already announced is that they’re contemplating going through the process of going through the people that did get tickets, red light camera tickets, and did not make voluntary payments, and it will be looking at making refunds for those folks that will not be impacted by that defense.”
“That’s what those cities are doing. I can’t speak to what the city of Palm Coast will do,” Reischmann said.
The lawsuit against Palm Coast was put on hold by both parties because “both sides recognized the importance of getting some clarification from the Florida Supreme Court on this one issue, on this one legal matter, which is the issue of preemption, so that’s really where we are as far as the legal aspects.”
There was no hint from any of the council members that they were interested in giving the city administration their own guidance on how to proceed, though it is entirely in the council’s power to do so.
“I would assume,” Mayor Jon Netts said, “ that as this plays out in the other jurisdictions, at some point a court, the courts, will outline what the appropriate behavior, reaction, repayment, refunding for a city would be.”
“We will be able to rely upon more decisions that come out of other courts involving other jurisdictions for guidance, in giving the city of Palm Coast guidance and advice on what would be appropriate, and what would be the best way to address the issue in our case,” Reischmann said.
“So this is stay tuned,” Netts said.
When it was Landon’s turn, he showed a video of a recent traffic crash. “The courts seem to be dominating the conversation, but I would like to show something that we recently received from the Sheriff’s Office to show why we do this program, and what was behind doing this,” Landon said.
The video shows a bicyclist crossing Palm Coast Parkway at Belle Terre Parkway, and getting struck by a car crossing the intersection. But the video had nothing to do with red-light runners, unless you consider cyclists—who cannot be cited by red-light cameras—part of the problem. Many cyclists think the normal rules of the road don’t apply to them. Many are old, confused, unaware. Clearly, this video had nothing to do with red-light running or red-light cameras. Landon conceded as much immediately. “In this case,” he said, “the driver was not at fault. The driver actually did not run a red light. But the bicyclist did.”
Landon went on to explain why the court’s decision last week will not impact city finances regardless. He said he’d heard rumors that the Supreme Court case “is going to have a major financial impact on the city. In fact it will have very little to no impact that our community will feel as a result of this if, and it’s still a big if, we have to reimburse any of the citations prior to July 2010.”
The dollars, he said, never went into the city’s operating funds, going instead into the street improvement fund, which, as a result of the additional revenue, expedited street and safety improvements. The city had plans for changing out all street signs to meet ADA requirements, for example, and to upgrade and repair all guardrails, do intersection improvements and additional striping. “As a result of revenue from the red-light camera program, we expedited those,” he said. “We got those things done ahead of schedule. But it’s all in our five-year capital improvement plan.”
The street-improvement fund generated revenue of $10 million this year, though Landon called that figure “misleading as far as being consistent year in and year out,” because grant dollars also account for the sum, including grants covering Palm Coast Parkway construction. Revenue not so restricted is about $2.5 million to $3 million a year. “If we have to reimburse, and that’s still an if, it would come out of this fund, where the dollars went into initially, and it would be a matter of adjusting that five-year capital improvement fund,” Landon said.
If the city has to reimburse the $1.2 million, Landon said, it won’t have any visible impact on the city. “All the naysayers that are out there saying we’re going to collapse as a result of this,” Landon said, “it’s almost amazing as to how the rumors and stories can get started.”