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City Council report blasts speed camera program

City Council report blasts speed camera program

The City Council released a sharply critical assessment Monday of Baltimore's once-lucrative speed camera system, faulting the program's enormous size and lack of oversight.

"Don't build a program if you can't operate it. That message was sent loudly and clearly throughout our investigation," said City Councilman James B. Kraft, who led the probe.

"In hindsight," Kraft said, "virtually everyone agrees the program was too big, the Department of Transportation did not have proper personnel to handle it, and too few people were assigned to its operation."

Despite the concerns, the Rawlings-Blake administration said Monday it still plans to move ahead with a smaller speed camera program — and this week will issue a request for proposals to do the work. Officials pledged better oversight, and said the system will not feature controversial "bounty" payments to vendors based on the number of citations issued.

"We have been clear that a program is needed to improve safety on our roadways, particularly in areas near and around schools where many children are present," said William Johnson, the transportation department director. "The department will now work aggressively to incorporate these reforms and reinstitute a manageable program that is efficient and maintains the trust of Baltimore City residents."

The city's speed and red-light camera system, run for years by Xerox State & Local Solutions and briefly by Brekford Corp., was shut down in April 2013 after the speed cameras repeatedly issued erroneous tickets. An investigation by The Baltimore Sun found errors by many speed cameras, including tickets issued for slow-moving or stopped cars.

A leaked audit of the Xerox system later showed the errors were even more widespread than the city had disclosed, with some cameras having error rates of more than 10 percent. Tests of Brekford's system also disclosed widespread problems.

Kraft said Monday that the council's investigation, launched early last year, found the errors were a result of sloppiness, not corruption. He noted the rushed pace of city reviews of speed camera tickets under Xerox. The Sun reported in 2012 that the Baltimore Police Department expected each officer monitoring the program to review 1,000 to 1,200 of the machine-generated citations per shift — sometimes as many as five or six per minute.

The city system at one time featured 83 speed cameras, as well as more than 70 red light cameras. Over a decade, the network generated more than $140 million for city government through $40 speed camera citations given out in school zones and $75 red light camera tickets. The city is missing out on millions in lost revenue while the cameras are down.

The city was counting on collecting $11.4 million from speed cameras alone in 2013; $7.5 million in 2014 and $6.9 million in 2015, according to projections before the cameras were shut down.

The administration has budgeted $2.5 million in revenue from speed cameras in the budget that begins July 1. The administration does not expect a camera system to be running again until after Jan. 1.

The council issued nine recommendations for the speed camera program, including limiting the number of cameras, hiring a "full-time director" with prior experience running such a system, and setting up a special fund so that money generated by the cameras would not be not co-mingled with other revenue streams.

"It is our belief that the program should be reduced significantly," Kraft said.

After shutting the program down in 2013, city officials said they wanted to resurrect it in 2014. But the mayor pledged to wait for the City Council to complete its investigation before requesting new bids. Monday marked the end of that investigation.

Three speed camera companies have registered lobbyists with the city in an attempt to win the rights to run the system.

Last year, the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation that will provide new protections for motorists from erroneous tickets and other speed camera abuses. Among other measures, the legislation requires local governments to publish detailed annual reports and subjects contractors to damages if their error rate exceeds 5 percent.

The city reached settlement agreements with the two vendors — paying Xerox $2.3 million for invoices dating to late 2012. The city paid Brekford $600,000, plus $2.2 million for the purchase of 72 speed cameras that officials don't expect to use for enforcement.

The council's investigative report was critical of those settlements, particularly the payments to Xerox.

"Given the actions of Xerox and the damage caused to the City … there remains a question as to why the contract was 'paid out' or settled," the report states.

A Xerox spokesman declined to comment Monday, saying officials had not had time to read the report. Brekford officials did not respond to a request for comment.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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