Baltimore got nearly $20 million in revenue from speed cameras over the past year — a higher-than-expected figure that is sparking debate over the accuracy of the city's budget projections and whether the camera program is more a cash cow than a safety measure.
The city took in a total of $19.2 million from the devices in the past fiscal year, which is $2.5 million more than the year before and about $4 million more than expected. The Rawlings-Blake administration revealed the windfall in documents to be given to the city's spending board Wednesday.
"I think it's sad," said State Del. Jill Carter of the millions pouring into City Hall. "I get complaints in my district all the time from the cameras. These are elderly ladies in my district who are getting these tickets. I think safety's important, but it's almost becoming impossible to have a quality life in the city."
Councilman Carl Stokes said the figures show the camera program "is revenue enhancement more than it is an enhancement for safety."
But a spokeswoman for Baltimore's transportation department said the city's 83 speed cameras, which issue $40 citations, are an important tool in trying to make the city a safer place.
"We must act aggressively to reduce Baltimore's pedestrian injury and fatality rate — the highest in Maryland," said spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes. She said revenues are high because there are still a lot of people going more than 12 miles per hour above the posted speed limit on city streets, the threshold for the cameras to trigger a ticket.
"Speeding in school zones remains a huge problem," she said. She said the city has made especially good use of its eight portable cameras, which it moves from neighborhood to neighborhood to catch unsuspecting motorists.
Barnes said the extra money will fund "traffic calming projects" in neighborhoods and improvements to intersections and sidewalks. She said city officials believe speed camera revenue will decline over time as drivers adjust their behavior.
In fact, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget for this year includes just $11.4 million in revenue from the cameras. During the City's Council's review of the plan, projections for speed camera revenue were a matter of heated debate.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young proposed an alternative spending plan that assumed $3.5 million more in funding from the cameras than the mayor's did. Young touted his plan as a way to keep recreation centers and fire companies from closing.
Rawlings-Blake, at the time, criticized Young's proposal as irresponsible. She said Montgomery County's experience with speed cameras shows that drivers stop speeding near cameras and that revenue therefore declines.
In a June letter to the council, Rawlings-Blake warned that "painful midyear budget cuts" could be necessary if Young's plan were approved and the increased speed camera revenue didn't come through.
"I can say that I was right," Young said Tuesday, arguing that if the city had used better projections, it could have kept several recreation centers and fire companies open.
"For the last couple of years, they've underestimated the speed camera revenue. This is an exercise in futility we go through every year," Young said. "I don't look for vindication. I want to keep rec centers open and fire companies open. That's all I'm interested in."
Maryland law requires that speed camera revenue be used for public safety purposes, for which Young believes fire companies qualify. But funding for recreation centers, schools and other programs could have been provided during the regular budget process, said Councilman Stokes.
"We all knew the speed camera dollars would be more than anticipated," Stokes said. "They lowered projections, so there couldn't be an honest conversation."
The extra money is the second item related to speed cameras to go before the Board of Estimates in recent weeks. In July, the panel approved a contract extension that gives a Dallas-based speed camera company a higher percentage of revenue from some tickets.
The five-month deal with Xerox State and Local Solutions Inc. — formerly known as ACS State and Local Solutions — permitted the company to continue giving out speed camera tickets within the city limits through the end of December. Under the terms of the extension, the city will continue to receive 65 percent of revenue produced by the company's portable cameras through Oct. 31, but will receive only 52 percent of revenue for the final two months of the year. Xerox's share will increase from 35 percent to 48 percent during those final months.
The city first contracted with the company in 2003, when it installed cameras to issue tickets to motorists who run red lights. Speed cameras were later added to the deal. The city has asked for bids for a new contract to operate speed cameras starting Jan. 1.
The city has been forced to do a series of recalls of some of its speed camera tickets, most recently in June when the transportation department said it voided more than 3,000 speeding tickets that contained an error.
Between December and April, a camera in the 4500 block of Wabash Avenue captured 3,145 drivers speeding, but the citations that were subsequently sent incorrectly listed the location as the 5400 block of Wabash Avenue.