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City builds budget with dubious traffic camera revenue

BALTIMORE CITY IS RAKING

in the revenue from speed, red-light, and right-turn cameras sprinkled throughout the city—millions more than was anticipated—and seems intent on expanding the program as planned and relocating some cameras as needed to keep the cash coming in, despite some reported problems.

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Optimists who think the city is simply promoting public safety, and not trying to raise revenue for a rainy day, might have been interested to hear what City Council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young had to say on June 18.

“I’m very confident that speed camera revenue will be much higher than estimated,” Young said in a budget hearing.

But complaints keep cropping up, both about the way the program is administered and the placement of the cameras themselves. Earlier this month, the city agreed to refund $125,000 to more than 3,000 motorists ticketed on Wabash Avenue after it was discovered that the tickets indicated the wrong city block.

City Paper

has recently heard other complaints about enforcement, including a Howard Street camera in a supposed school zone with no indication. An anti-camera web site called stopbigbrothermd.org has been collecting news reports of errors and camera miscalibrations, including a report that thousands of Baltimore speed camera tickets were signed by a police officer long deceased. Also, many claim that the yellow-light intervals have been shortened to maximize red light tickets.

“I refer to them as ‘scameras,’” says Frank Wilsey of Mt. Washington, who’s been railing against the cameras on a neighborhood listserv. He says the $40 fine is set low enough that most people won’t fight it. The camera tickets don’t assess points against your license either, because there is no proof of who is driving, so they do nothing to get bad drivers off the road. “The underlying issue is, the city can’t be trusted with these.”

It’s happened to us too (“Seeing Amber,”

, Aug. 18, 2004), but in that case it was written off to a signal error.

And the revenue keeps pouring in, largely thanks to the city’s strategy of relocating cameras once motorists have learned to look out for them. Young’s spokesperson, Lester Davis, says the administration has underestimated that revenue for several years running.

“They say the revenue [from each camera] falls 70 percent after the first year,” Davis says. The idea is that motorists get hip to the camera locations and change their behavior. “But the governments are using some roving cameras,” Davis says.

And the City Council continues to underestimate camera revenue, likely to have some money to plug budget holes as needed. In 2011, the budget estimate for speed camera revenue was $3.5 million, and the cameras generated $16.7 million in fines. The coming year’s budget forecasts $11.4 million from speed camera fines, a $3.5 million decrease from the current year—even though 20 more cameras are coming on line, bringing the total up to 74.

Red-light camera fines have also been much higher than estimated: the 2010 budget expected $7.7 million from red-light runners and the actual take was more than $9.7 million. Right-turn fines were even more out of whack. The budget estimated $250,000 would be collected in 2010. The actual haul was $2.7 million—more than 10 times the estimate. Together, these two underestimations netted $4.5 million in budget slack for the mayor that year.

In fact, in the 2012 adopted budget, speed camera revenue was good enough to make the highlights on page three: “On the revenue side, reduced Homestead Tax Credit costs and new speed camera fines are offsetting the impacts of negative property assessment growth and continued loss of highway user revenue due to the struggling economy.”

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