Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Red-Light Cameras Falling Short in Revenue; Officials Say Safety Is the Main Concern, but at 8 of 13 Camera Sites, Crashes Have Gone Up

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Red-Light Cameras Falling Short in Revenue; Officials Say Safety Is the Main Concern, but at 8 of 13 Camera Sites, Crashes Have Gone Up

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Hong

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office's red-light camera program hasn't done everything officials said it would.

In fact, some types of accidents increased at a majority of intersections equipped with cameras, according to Sheriff's Office records. The cameras also made less money than officials originally predicted, and the city keeps a smaller percentage of the fines issued compared to other cities. The cost of salaries and benefits of the police officers who monitor the program is nearly half of the money the city will receive this year from red-light camera fines.

Still, the Sheriff's Office champions the cameras as a program that makes intersections safer, and no city officials challenge that characterization.

State lawmakers and Florida city officials have different sentiments about red-light cameras. Some criticized the cameras as a back-door tax, not a safety program, while others say the programs do not make enough money to sustain themselves. Although efforts to ban red-light cameras this year died, lawmakers still are mulling changes that could go into effect later this year.

The city has 24 cameras at 16 intersections and recently added two more that will begin tracking drivers next month.

Of the 13 intersections equipped with cameras for about one year, nine saw decreases in side-impact crashes, the potentially deadly collisions often the result of running red lights.

On the other end of the issue, the same number of intersections have seen a jump in rear-end accidents while the total number of crashes increased at eight of those intersections, according to Sheriff's Office data.

Revenues are a lot lower than officials projected when promoting the program.

The money generated by the cameras falls short of the city's original expectations. Months before the first set of cameras were installed in March 2013, city officials anticipated receiving $1.5 million in fines. In reality, it received just about 5 percent - $82,700 - from the Sheriff's Office for that budget year.

The Sheriff's Office expects to give the city $200,000 less than it budgeted for this year despite the city cutting its revenue expectations in half compared to 2013. An analysis done by the Sheriff's Office earlier this year predicted the city would receive $532,200 in red-light fines this year, compared to the $732,200 the city budgeted.

But the personnel costs of running the program is 46 percent of the $532,200 the city will get from the program. The city will pay around $245,000 in salaries and benefits to the two officers who review tickets and paid about the same last year. Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Lauri-Ellen Smith said the program "technically" doesn't cost the department because the officers were hired prior to the cameras' installation.

Regarding the back-to-back revenue shortfalls, Jacksonville Undersheriff Dwain Senterfitt partly blamed it on the fact that the city didn't install all 24 cameras at once. The last four installed didn't begin monitoring reds lights until January.

The other reason, according to Sheriff's Office budget chief Bill Clement, is that they had little historic information when they made their budget predictions last July. "We had no data," he said. "We pretty much had to build this projection three months into the program."

City Council President Bill Gulliford said the revenue shortfall might not be a cause for a concern. In fact, he said it could be proof the cameras deter drivers from running red lights. "Although some claim the intent was to generate revenue, my intent was to see the reduction of the flagrant running of the red lights," he said. "Our budget is fraught with examples where we overbudget revenues, but there are also cases where we underbudget."

But City Councilman John Crescimbeni called the revenue decline troubling. He agreed the project's primary focus should be increased safety, but when the city expects to receive money, the money needs to come in. …

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