Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended the city's nearly $20 million in revenue from its booming speed camera program Wednesday, placing the blame on motorists who refuse to slow down.
"It's a minor inconvenience for people who routinely break the law," the mayor said of the $40 speeding tickets triggered by the city's 83 cameras. She spoke after the city's spending board received documents showing a multimillion-dollar increase from the cameras.
The city got $19.2 million in revenue from the program over the past year — a nearly tenfold increase in the three years the cameras have been operating. In 2010, the city took in just $2.4 million.
The numbers also show that the city is generating significantly more money than some other jurisdictions with speed cameras. The state got $8 million in revenue from its speed cameras over the past year, while Montgomery County made $6.7 million. Baltimore County projected that it would take in $1.8 million, while Howard County expected $1.2 million.
Baltimore's higher-than-expected figure for the fiscal year that ended June 30 has sparked debate over the accuracy of the city's budget projections and whether the camera program is aimed more at making money than making streets safe.
But Rawlings-Blake said that if city drivers would just slow down, there would be fewer tickets. "If you take a look at other jurisdictions, their revenue trends downward," the mayor said. She said she expects the city's proceeds from the program to decline in the next year as well.
News of the windfall caused many in Baltimore to weigh in on the issue.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the increasing revenue shows something is wrong with the city's speed camera program. She expressed concern about data showing that eight portable cameras — which are moved to nearly 100 locations throughout city during the year — account for a disproportionately large portion of revenue. She said she knows of residents in her district who have begged to have a camera placed on their block, only to have the camera moved a month later.
Clarke said she would rather see the cameras stay in consistent locations to force drivers to slow down, rather than being moved around to generate revenue. "If our revenues go down, that's a success," she said. "That means people slowed down."
Councilman Robert W. Curran said he believed the city should post more prominent signs to alert drivers to the existence of the cameras. "I want the revenue, but I want public safety more," he said.
At WBAL radio, former State Sen. Clarence Mitchell IV — the host of the "C4 Show" — said he planned to dedicate a portion of Thursday's show to the cameras.
"This is nothing but a cash revenue generator," he said. "It's really a backdoor tax on the citizens."
He noted that cameras throughout the region have been vandalized. "I don't condone it, but I understand," he said.
During the past three years, city officials have increased the number of speed cameras in Baltimore from 28 in 2010 to 56 in 2011 to 83 currently. The cameras issue $40 citations to motorists who drive at least 12 miles above the speed limit. By law, the cameras can be used only in school or road construction zones.
"We are very concerned about the conflict of interest that writing so much revenue into their budget creates," Ron Ely, editor of the anti-speed camera website, StopBigBrotherMD.org, said of the amount of revenue pouring into Baltimore from the cameras.
He said he realized the $19.2 million was about $4 million more than the city had expected, but said, "I find it disconcerting that they would budget for $15 million worth of revenue to begin with. That relies on hundreds of thousands of traffic violations which have not in fact taken place yet."
Ely said the cameras are "a part of our justice and law enforcement system, and a profit motive has a corrupting influence."
A spokeswoman for Baltimore's transportation department said the extra money will be used to 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.
The leaders of the city's fire unions say they want to use the money for another purpose: Saving a fire company that is set for closure and reinstating a second company.
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"They should use the money to keep Truck 10 open permanently," said Michael Campbell, president of the fire officers' union.
West Baltimore's Truck 10 is scheduled to close Oct. 1. It costs about $2.1 million annually to fund a fire company. By law, revenue from speed cameras must go to public safety.
"To me, public safety is fire and police," Campbell said. "Police did not get cut. Fire got cut. If we have the extra funds, let's put it to the Fire Department and increase safety."
Rawlings-Blake does not plan to add more speed cameras in the near future, according to her budget projections, and the city expects its speed camera revenue to start falling soon. The city is counting on $11.4 million from speed cameras next year; $7.5 million in 2014 and $6.9 million in 2015.
Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Calvert contributed this article.