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Mayor says speed cameras still not ready to issue tickets

Six months after Baltimore pulled its speed and red light cameras offline because of mistakes, officials say the city's vendor still isn't ready to begin issuing tickets — and no one can say when the program will resume.

The city counts on the cameras both to enforce safe-driving laws and to generate millions of dollars in revenue. The continued delay and uncertainty are causing some to question whether Baltimore's new vendor, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County, is up to the task.

"If we don't have people that can do the job correctly, then we have to find someone who can," said City Councilman Brandon Scott. "This is something that needs to be handled posthaste. It's bad business for us to let the issue hang out there this long."

Tests have shown that the system sometimes produces inaccurate speed readings, makes address errors and provides incorrect information on how to pay a citation, city officials said.

"We want to make sure when they go back online, they go back online with accuracy, efficiency and consistency," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday. "The current vendor is not there yet."

Rawlings-Blake said the city does not have a date when it will resurrect the program, which was North America's largest, with more than 150 speed and red light cameras.

Brekford officials chalked up the delay in restarting the speed camera system to the city being cautious.

"We have been meeting with the city [Department of Transportation] on a regular basis to make sure we've done everything to cross our t's and dot our i's," said Maurice R. Nelson, Brekford's managing director. "It sounds like they're doing their due diligence."

Nelson said that the city is the one in charge of the speed camera program and that once Brekford is told to get the program running again, it will do so. He said he is unsure what the exact cause of the delay is. "At this point the only thing that we know is we'll sit tight and if the city wants something, we'll give it to them," he said.

Brekford president Scott Rutherford also said the company has been having weekly progress meetings with city officials. "The city is being very careful that they don't have the same mistakes happen again," he said.

A Baltimore Sun investigation last year documented erroneous speed readings from several speed cameras supplied by a prior vendor. The city suspended the entire camera program in April under Brekford, which took over the cameras in January, because of fresh problems that officials blamed on human error.

The city is counting on the cameras to generate $15.8 million this fiscal year: $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 is Brekford's share. The company gets a cut of every ticket paid.

The mayor said she planned to make up lost revenue from the idle cameras through "general belt-tightening," not cuts to any specific service.

"Just like we've gotten through revenue shortages before, we'll employ the same methods. We look for ways to cut costs. We look for ways to become more efficient and absorb that loss," she said. "There are no programs that are going to be cut."

Council members said they liked that approach.

"Any time we're not cutting programs to fill a deficit is a great thing," Scott said. "If they have to do this, then that is the best route so we aren't fighting about the cuts."

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said losing the revenue was "certainly a challenge, but the city has a duty to fully restore integrity to the speed camera program."

Ragina Averella, government and media affairs manager for driver advocacy group AAA Mid-Atlantic, also praised the city's decision as evidence that Baltimore is putting accuracy ahead of profits.

"While we recognize the importance of automated enforcement in protecting children in school zones, we applaud the city for not restarting the speed camera program until they are certain that the system is working properly," she said. "The public's confidence is critical in light of the issues we have seen with speed cameras and we believe city officials are working to restore that confidence."

She said city officials have assured her that they will give motorists a 30-day waiting period before any citations are issued after the cameras are restored.

The lack of tickets has also caused some problems for Brekford, which has been losing money and informing investors that it is awaiting revenue from the Baltimore program. In a statement to investors, Brekford said the company lost $1.2 million in 2012, in part because it had to buy and install new cameras for Baltimore to replace the old ones. Recently, the company reported a net income of $76,000 for the first three months of 2013, but a loss of $476,000 from April through June.

"We incurred significant costs in anticipation of our role as the primary vendor in the implementation of Baltimore's Automated Traffic Enforcement Program," C.B. Brechin, CEO of Brekford, said in a statement to investors in August.

Until this year, the cameras were a big revenue source for the city, yielding about $50 million just from the speed cameras since 2009.

After The Sun published its findings last fall, Xerox State and Local Solutions, the city's contractor until Dec. 31, acknowledged that five of 83 speed cameras had error rates of 5 percent, prompting the city to take those offline. Rawlings-Blake publicly committed to replace all city speed cameras with newer models that use more sophisticated tracking radar.

The city's camera system was shut down after Jan. 1 amid a bumpy transition from Xerox to Brekford. Brekford said Xerox did not leave behind software needed to operate the cameras, while Xerox contended that its software is proprietary.

The city began issuing speed camera tickets in February using new cameras from Brekford. It also was able to start using the existing red light cameras. But in mid-April, the city suspended the program because of new errors, officials said.

According to city records, Baltimore has cut a check to Brekford for speed and red light camera services once so far: $700,000 in August. Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, 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.

Scott said he was concerned the city was making payments to Brekford for cameras that are not ready for use.

"It does concern me any time we're paying taxpayer dollars and not getting a benefit," he said. "I hope they sort this out and get this issue resolved."

Brekford has also run into issues in other jurisdictions. This year, police departments in Greenbelt and Hagerstown have voided or issued refunds for hundreds of speed camera tickets because some radar units weren't calibrated annually, as required by state law.

Baltimore County experienced the same issue with its vendor, Xerox, earlier this year, prompting officials to void more than 1,400 citations and take 12 cameras out of service for more than a month. County officials never alerted the public about the lapse until last week, when asked about the issue by The Sun.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

luke.broadwater@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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