In the latest sign of turmoil for Baltimore's speed camera program, city officials are moving to sever ties with the vendor amid unresolved problems — an action that could idle the city's already mothballed speed and red-light camera system until the middle of next year.
Sources familiar with discussions between the city and Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County said officials have grown increasingly frustrated with Brekford's mistakes in trying to revive the program, once North America's largest and the source of $50 million to the city since 2009 from speed cameras alone.
Tests by the city have shown that 11 months after Brekford took over, the system is still troubled by inaccurate speed readings, incorrect addresses and tickets listing wrong information on how to pay a citation, city officials have said. Now officials are working to end the five-year contract, the sources said.
Brekford officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, acknowledged that the administration was in "ongoing" discussions with the firm.
This would be the second time in less than a year that the city has parted ways with a speed camera vendor. Its previous contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, departed at the end of 2012, amid a Baltimore Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings from several cameras.
Brekford operated its camera system for less than two months before the city shut it down in April. Given that the network has been offline now for seven months, City Councilman William H. Cole IV said Friday that the city should consider doing away with the cameras permanently.
"If we've lived this long without [the cameras]," he said, "naturally the question is: Do we need to rush into finding a way to replace them, or do we evaluate if they're even needed?"
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young recently learned that the speed camera program under Brekford probably could not be salvaged, said his spokesman, Lester Davis.
"He just found out the city was looking to cut ties with Brekford," Davis said. "He's disappointed. It's the prerogative of the administration to go into a different direction if that's in the best interest of citizens. When the program is down and not functioning, you have safety at risk and a loss of revenue. We have a system that's not functioning and not going to be functioning for some time."
Assuming officials decide to stick with speed cameras, severing the contract with Brekford would force the city to start a new vendor search, a lengthy process that would continue to deprive the city of anticipated revenue from fines and what transportation officials consider important safety benefits.
The city had been counting on the cameras to generate $15.8 million during the fiscal year that runs through June: $11.2 million from $40 speed camera citations and $4.6 million from $75 red-light camera tickets. The city budget does not say how much of that would have gone to Brekford. The company was to get a share of every ticket paid — $11.20 per speed camera ticket.
The mayor has said she plans to make up for any lost revenue through "general belt-tightening," not cuts to any specific service.
The Sun investigation last year documented inaccurate tickets issued by cameras around the city, including the case of a motorist accused of speeding while stopped at a red light. Xerox acknowledged that five of its cameras had an error rate of about 5 percent, prompting the city to take those cameras offline.
Rawlings-Blake convened a task force to study the automated enforcement program, including accuracy rates and management performance. Upon hiring Brekford, which took over the system Jan. 1, both city and company officials promised to cut down on errors.
"We're going to pay attention to quality control," Brekford executive Maurice Nelson said at the time.
But lobbyists for Xerox warned that Brekford was too small and lacked experience running a system of Baltimore's size, which had more than 150 automated cameras. Before winning the city's contract, Brekford had operated 12 speed camera systems, in towns such as Laurel, Salisbury and Hagerstown, and had less than $10 million in assets.
The firm got Baltimore's system running again in February, but city officials shut the cameras down in April amid new problems blamed on human error. For example, a Brekford camera on The Alameda was programmed with the wrong speed limit, and the city voided hundreds of tickets.
Rawlings-Blake said last month that she didn't want the cameras to go back online until they could demonstrate "accuracy, efficiency and consistency."
The shutdown has caused financial issues for Brekford, which has been alerting investors to losses. Brekford said it lost $1.2 million in 2012 during the ramp-up to run Baltimore's program, and nearly $1 million through September of this year.
On Thursday, the company filed a notice with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notifying investors that top company officials, CEO C.B. Brechin and President Scott Rutherford, had given the company more time to repay $500,000 in personal loans from them.
Meanwhile, city officials said last week that they have resolved a long-standing dispute with Xerox, agreeing to pay their former vendor $2.3 million. Xerox had run the city's red-light cameras since 1999 and began operating speed cameras in 2009 after the General Assembly legalized them. All told, Xerox says it pumped $140 million into city accounts.
The dispute began earlier this year, when Baltimore officials said they were refusing to pay Xerox for its final three months of work in 2012 because of a "number of disagreements" that stemmed from the rocky transition to Brekford in January.
After the change of vendors, Brekford found it couldn't operate the city's existing cameras because Xerox didn't leave behind the camera software. Xerox contended its software was proprietary. Brekford subsequently set up dozens of new cameras.
Documents show city lawyers reached a settlement with Xerox on Sept. 30. Harris, the mayor's spokesman, called the $2.3 million payment a "balance" between the two sides' views that is "fair" to city taxpayers.
"The payment made to Xerox under that agreement represents a balance between the compensation Xerox was entitled to ... and costs incurred by the City in the course of transitioning to a new program," he said in a statement.
Xerox spokesman Carl Langsenkamp declined to comment.
Though the camera program has fiscal implications, its purpose was to promote safety, city officials have insisted. By law the city speed cameras must be within a half-mile of a school.
Despite the goals, the city experienced a nearly 5 percent increase in traffic accidents from 2009 to 2012 — a span during which the city rolled out its speed cameras, according to state police.
City transportation officials played down the increase, pointing to statistics showing that the number of accidents fell at six intersections with speed cameras from 2009 to 2011.
When Baltimore put the camera program out to bid in 2012, Brekford offered the city about $2 million more in fine revenue over the five-year contract — $90.7 million versus the $88.8 million projected by Xerox. The amount of revenue pledged was the biggest factor in deciding a company's score during the bidding process, documents show.
Baltimore has paid Brekford for speed and red-light camera services once so far: $700,000 in August, according to city records. The city has said the invoice was a partial payment for Brekford's purchase of 72 speed camera units, for which the city agreed to pay $2.2 million.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said he has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 15 for the council to receive a briefing on the status of the cameras.
Leo Burroughs Jr., a traffic safety activist and president of the Memorial Apartments Residents Association in Bolton Hill , said Friday he believes the city should wait at least a year before resuming any speed camera program.
"We should suspend this camera business for a year or more until we're certain of what we're doing," Burroughs said. "This is a whole bunch of foolishness."
Nov. 7, 2012: Board of Estimates picks Brekford Corp. over Xerox State and Local Solutions to manage Baltimore's red-light and speed camera contract starting in 2013.
Nov. 18, 2012: The Baltimore Sun begins publishing a multi-part investigation that documents erroneous speed camera tickets from the Xerox system going back months.
Dec. 13, 2012: The Sun reveals that a Baltimore motorist received a speed camera ticket while stopped at a red light, the seventh camera shown to produce citations with wrong speed readings.
Dec. 15, 2012: Xerox discloses that five of Baltimore's 83 radar-equipped speed cameras had 5 percent error rates; city takes those cameras offline. All cameras go offline Jan. 1 amid Xerox's exit.
Feb. 20: City issues the first tickets using Brekford's new "tracking radar" speed cameras.
April 16: City says it has stopped issuing tickets after one Brekford camera is found programmed with the incorrect speed limit.
Oct. 30: Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says Brekford is still not ready to resume issuing tickets, calls for "belt-tightening" to fill possible $15 million budget hole left by absence of camera ticket fines.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun