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Baltimore to use $4 million in excess speed camera revenue to cover Fire Department overtime

Baltimore to use $4 million in excess speed camera revenue to cover Fire Department overtime
Baltimore’s revived speed camera system is generating millions more in revenue than what was planned — and city officials now intend to use that money to balance the Fire Department’s budget. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s revived speed camera system is generating millions more in revenue than what was planned — and city officials now intend to use that money to balance the Fire Department’s budget.

The Board of Estimates, which is controlled by Mayor Catherine Pugh, is slated to vote Wednesday to use an extra $4 million generated by speed camera fines — on top of the $8 million in budgeted revenue from them — to help pay unfunded overtime expenses in the Fire Department.

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By law, revenue from speed cameras must be used for public safety purposes, including pedestrian safety programs. City officials say supporting the Fire Department is an appropriate use of the funds.

But some City Council members and cycling activists questioned the proposed use of the money for overtime rather than to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

Councilman Ryan Dorsey said sending the money to the Fire Department for the fiscal year that ends this month would continue a pattern of diverting money raised by the transportation department away from upgrading city streets.

“You should be spending more money that’s derived from cars, which are a danger to people and are a detriment to the economic welfare of the city, to promote other modes of transportation,” Dorsey said. “That’s where I think our money should be going from the cameras.”

The Fire Department has been a particular target of criticism from advocates who want to change Baltimore’s street design because the city agency has raised concerns about whether adding bike lanes would leave too little space for ambulances and fire engines.

Liz Cornish, director of advocacy group Bikemore, said the mayor was tone-deaf for using money that the public had been told would be spent to improve traffic safety to balance the Fire Department’s books. She called it “a misuse of those funds and not the spirit of the speed camera program.”

“We should be investing that money into road designs that slow traffic,” Cornish said.

Baltimore officials are quickly expanding the speed and red light camera system — from 56 cameras to 100. The speed camera tickets cost $40 each and red-light violations are $75.

The city expects to collect $21.2 million next year from that expanded network — nearly triple the amount budgeted for this year and close to the record $31 million in fines issued in 2012. A year later the system was shut down for issuing erroneous tickets.

Councilman Brandon Scott said he intends to address the spending request when it comes before the council, which also would have to approve the expenditure.

“We have dire transportation needs in the city of Baltimore,” Scott said. “What we’ve been told for years is that traffic camera revenues are going to traffic safety.”

The Board of Estimates also is expected to approve $21 million in additional spending to balance the Police Department’s books for the budget year that ends June 30. That money would come from better than expected revenue from taxes on property sales, officials said.

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