Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged Wednesday to move forward with a new but smaller speed camera system despite the spate of problems that troubled Baltimore's last two speed camera vendors.
"You don't cut your nose off to spite your face," Rawlings-Blake said to suggestions that the city eliminate the cameras permanently. "We had an experience that didn't work for Baltimore," she said. "My goal is to get a system that works, not to scrap it."
Her comments came after the city's spending board voted 4-1 to pay $600,000 to terminate the most recent contract for running the city's speed and red-light camera system, once the largest in North America. The payment means vendor Brekford Corp., of Anne Arundel County, will receive $2.8 million in total from the city for a system that was online for only a few weeks this year.
"They did not deliver the service they said they would," said Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, who cast the lone vote against the payment. "The city has spent a significant amount of time and resources with this contract. What is the basis for the $600,000? I don't believe the city should be paying Brekford. We have lost mega-millions because of this contract."
Pratt contended that the city could have declared Brekford in default of its five-year contract and therefore made no further payment.
Brekford officials did not respond to requests for comment. The company's settlement with the city prohibits either side from disparaging the other.
Michael D. Schrock, a city lawyer, said the settlement will avoid protracted litigation with Brekford.
"This allows the city to move forward in 2014 with a red-light, speed camera program," he said. "It allows us to move forward in a different direction." Officials did not say when they would issue a new request for bids.
The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by the mayor, voted to approve a settlement ending a troubled relationship that has left the city's once-lucrative automated enforcement program offline since April. City officials have said the system was still troubled by inaccurate speed readings, incorrect addresses and tickets listing wrong information on how to pay a citation.
"We will not resume the program until we can assure accuracy across the board," Rawlings-Blake said. She said the city would place "safety over revenue" in selecting a new vendor.
She said the city would never again engage in a so-called "bounty system" contract, a controversial approach that provides a financial incentive for vendors who issue more tickets.
Such a payment scheme — in which companies receive more money for more tickets — is used in Baltimore County, Howard County and elsewhere. Gov. Martin O'Malley has said such a payment program violates the intent of state law.
The Baltimore Sun reported last month that city officials were moving to end the Brekford contract. Sources familiar with discussions between the city and Brekford said city officials had grown frustrated with the company's mistakes in trying to revive Baltimore's program. Speed cameras alone generated $50 million since 2009.
Some City Council members have suggested that the city scrap the cameras permanently and return to the old method of having police enforce traffic rules. Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday that she rejects that notion.
"The citizens would much rather have police officers patrolling neighborhoods and reducing violent crime rather than being at fixed positions at intersections," she said.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she respects Rawlings-Blake's view, but believes humans can do a better job than machines.
"We need those traffic division officers back on the street," Clarke said Wednesday. "They change the habits of drivers. There's something about a police officer in boots pulling you over that stays in your mind."
The termination marks the second time in less than a year that the city has parted with a speed camera vendor. Its previous contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, left in late 2012 amid a Baltimore Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings from several cameras, including one that ticketed a driver for speeding while stopped at a red light.
When Brekford won the contract from Xerox, Brekford officials pledged a seamless transition. But they soon said they couldn't deliver on that promise because Xerox controlled proprietary software needed to operate the city's 83 speed cameras and 81 red-light cameras.
In an effort to resurrect the system, the spending panel then authorized a $2.2 million payment to purchase 72 new cameras that would run with Brekford's software.
The end of the Brekford contract means that more than 200 speed and red-light cameras owned by the city are sitting inactive along Baltimore's streets. Since camera vendors control the software for the devices, it's unlikely that the city will be able to use those cameras to enforce traffic laws, officials said.
William Johnson, the city's director of transportation, said the cameras could be used for other purposes, such as traffic studies.
"They may not be used for tracking speed," he said. "They may be used for traffic counts and other activities."
Johnson said the city plans to follow the recommendations of a mayoral task force that studied speed cameras. The task force, composed of city officials and outsiders, also recommended increasing oversight, changing the way camera sites are selected and creating a website with maps and other information of interest to the public
"One of the recommendations is to evaluate how we can move forward without the bounty system," Johnson said. "That is our intent."
Johnson, who joined city government six months ago, said Baltimore officials plan to start with a "smaller, manageable number of units and then expand over time."
The city had been counting on the cameras to generate more than $15 million this year: $11 million from the $40 speed camera citations and more than $4 million from $75 red-light camera tickets. The company was to have had a share of every ticket paid — $11.20 per speed camera ticket.
City officials had estimated total revenue over the five-year contract at $93 million.
The city is projecting a $20 million budget deficit next year, which could have largely been eliminated had the cameras been online, Pratt said.
"That could have been enough to cover the shortfall for the budget deficit," she said.
Rawlings-Blake emphasized Wednesday that the tickets help keep children in school zones safe. She touted city statistics that she said showed a 29 percent reduction in crashes at intersections with speed cameras.
But citywide, Baltimore experienced a nearly 5 percent increase in traffic accidents from 2009 to 2012 — a four-year span during which the city rolled out and ramped up its network of speed cameras, according to state police.
Ragina Averella, government affairs director at AAA Mid-Atlantic, said any new program should avoid the so-called "bounty system."
"That's of great concern to AAA and the majority of our members," Averella said. "We want to make sure there's no incentive for them to rack up more tickets."
She said she supports plans to move forward with fewer cameras. "They probably should start much smaller and see exactly where they go from there," she said.
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, one of the four board members who voted in favor of Wednesday's deal, said it is necessary to resume the camera program.
"We're just as frustrated as the citizens are," Young said. "I recognize it's for safety, but it's also for revenue. I'm not going to lie about that. Other counties have cameras, and we should have them, too."
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