Legislation that would allow the installation of exterior cameras on school buses to catch and ticket drivers who fail to stop for them got a mixed review during a recent Harford County Council hearing, and two key amendments were put onto the bill Tuesday night.
The county's top law enforcement official spoke in favor of the legislation to put the cameras on the public school system's nearly 500 buses, but at least one resident suggested the proposal is more to generate revenue than to increase safety.
"Passing this bill is a no-brainer," Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane told the council members during the Oct. 7 hearing on Bill 14-30, sponsored by County Executive David Craig.
The council didn't vote on the bill the night of hearing, in keeping with its policy of not acting on bills immediately following the public hearing, nor was final action taken at Tuesday night's legislative session.
Instead, the council approved one amendment that halves the proposed fine for drivers who receive a ticket generated by a bus camera from $250 to $125, one of the issues raised at the earlier hearing.
A second amendment approved Tuesday covers installation of cameras on buses owned by private contractors. The majority of the buses that carry Harford County Public Schools students are owned and operated by private contractors.
Bane, who said bus drivers often tell him about people passing a bus when it has stopped, said the county has to get the message out that those who pass a school bus when it's stopped and its red lights are flashing will probably have to pay a fine.
The exterior cameras would be similar to red-light or speed enforcement cameras and would be run by an outside contractor. Bane admitted he is not sure exactly how much it would all cost.
"It's expensive," Bane said in response to a question from Councilman Dion Guthrie. "We don't know what the exact dollar amount is. You're dealing with some very sophisticated technology."
"Until we sit down with vendors, we really don't know what that cost will be," the sheriff explained. "I plan to do very hard negotiating with these vendors because they're out competing for our business."
A fiscal impact note for the legislation showed no operating costs and unknown revenue for the county. There are 497 buses serving Harford County Public Schools, including 113 county-owned buses and 384 contractor-owned and operated buses, according to a Tuesday afternoon email from Lindsay B. Bilodeau, communications specialist for Harford County Public Schools.
"The vendor's costs and fees will be covered by any fines collected, with the County retaining any remaining revenue," states the note prepared by the council's audit office. "The County's revenue will be designated for public safety programs, including pedestrian safety."
Barry Lloyd, a resident who said he used to be a law enforcement officer, testified against the legislation, calling it a cash cow for the county that will not actually improve safety.
"I think there's a lot of problems with this bill," Lloyd said, arguing that school pedestrians nationwide were, in 70 percent of cases, struck by their own bus, not another vehicle.
He said he is "certainly mindful of kids and safety, but I'm not sure that we're not going to run into this all the time."
He also said he could picture four motorists who did stop for the bus nevertheless being fined $250 each
"The county cash register just went up to the tune of $1,000 and how many accidents did we prevent?" Lloyd asked.
"In this economy, when $250 [fines] start hitting the mail, you're going to have tons of people hitting the court," he said.
"Part of this is, I think, the devil's in the details," he said. "With less than 1 percent of the accidents nationwide involving fatalities of schoolchildren being passed by buses, I kind of question the need for it."
Lloyd said in many years of policing, he rarely caught people who actually failed to stop for a bus. He did not say where he had worked.
There are 75 cameras already inside buses, school system transportation director Charles Taibi said after the hearing. He said the school system has also bought another 16 interior cameras that are waiting to be installed.
Though Bane is supporting the bus camera bill, he has not been supportive in the past of either red light or speed cameras.
Among the county and its three municipalities, only the Town of Bel Air has red light cameras. Like Bane, other local elected officials in Harford have not made efforts to seek authority to install either.