Miami to resume issuing red-light camera tickets

07/25/2013 11:22 AM

07/25/2013 8:20 PM

The city of Miami will resume issuing tickets Friday to drivers caught running certain red lights, after commissioners narrowly decided Thursday to create a special board to hear citation appeals.

The commission remained divided on the issue, voting 3-2 to set up the board — and as a result reinstate the tickets — two weeks after delaying a vote in an attempt to reach broader agreement.

Chairman Marc Sarnoff, Vice Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort and Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones voted in favor. Commissioners Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez voted against.

Commissioners on Thursday also voted to accept Mayor Tomás Regalado’s proposed property tax rate, which features a slight decrease, but not without dissent from Sarnoff and Suarez, who is challenging the mayor for the city’s top post in November.

On the red light camera vote, Gort characterized the decision as an easy one because he said traffic cameras have made Miami’s streets safer. “It does change people’s driving,” he said.

The hearing board won’t be ready until mid-September, according to Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo, but tickets will resume Friday. Drivers have 60 days to contest the tickets; the lag gives Miami time to establish the appeals process.

Tickets had been suspended for more than three weeks — though the city’s 153 traffic cameras at 98 intersections were still turned on — while commissioners made up their minds on the creation of the new board.

A state law that kicked in July 1 required municipalities to set up the board if they wanted to continue their largely profitable red-light camera programs. Previously, drivers had to fight the tickets in county court.

Several other cities have already created the boards, including Davie, Hollywood and Coral Gables. Doral has suspended its cameras and is considering doing away with them altogether, with city council members scheduled to take up the matter at their next meeting on Aug. 21.

Miami makes $3.4 million a year from the more-than 1,200 citations it issues a month. The appeals process will require drivers who unsuccessfully contest their tickets to pay an additional $85 administrative fee.

That’s less than other cities that plan to take full advantage of the state law, which allows them to charge up to $250 in fees.

Drivers who don’t show up to their hearing or fail to pay the fine after losing an appeal would be unable to renew their vehicle registration until they pay up.

Suarez cited that penalty as one of the reasons he opposed creating the appeals board. Incumbent Regalado supports the red-light camera program.

But Bravo, the assistant city manager, said the penalty would be more forgiving than under the previous law, which called for a driver’s license suspension for someone who failed to pay.

“The law was meant to provide citizens with more options and a more-lenient process,” she said.

Suarez lambasted Regalado’s administration for providing commissioners with incomplete information on the appeals board when it first came up in June and then in early July. He also said he did not trust projections of how much the board would cost the city.

Out of the debate came several future policy proposals, including requiring commission approval before any additional cameras are installed. The city’s existing contract with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based vendor that operates the cameras, allows the administration to sign off on new devices without a commission vote — an action that Miami has taken at least twice.

Other changes included capping the additional $85 charged to drivers who unsuccessfully contest their tickets, and reviewing that penalty, which will fund the appeals board operations, every year in the city’s budget.

Commissioner Spence-Jones, the swing vote who on July 11 delayed the appeals board decision to give Carollo and Suarez more time to digest the information, lamented that her colleagues did not back Thursday’s decision unanimously.

“The ugly side of this has caused us to fight amongst each other on this dais, which I hate,” she said. But on the cameras, she added, “The good of this totally outweighs the bad.”

Like two weeks ago, it was primarily proponents of the traffic cameras who filled the City Hall commission chambers Thursday, though no public hearing was held. Most of the supporters came from the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which receives $3 out of every $158 ticket fine. Another $10 goes to Florida hospital trauma centers.

On the property-tax rate issue, commissioners were also divided, with Sarnoff calling for a vote to raise the rate enough to hire at least 100 new police officers, and Suarez arguing the proposed rate was actually an increase, not a decrease.

In the end, commissioners passed the proposed rate of $8.43 for every $1,000 of property value, a slight decrease that will save $8 for the owner of a $200,000 property that does not have a homestead exemption. Carollo, Gort and Spence-Jones voted in favor, while Sarnoff and Suarez voted against.

Sarnoff, who has spent the past year railing to hire more cops, suggested raising the rate to collect an additional $5 million, enough for raises for officers and to reinstitute a program in which the city pays for an officer to get a bachelor’s degree. He found no support on the dais.

Notably absent Thursday was City Manager Johnny Martinez, who is still recovering from a stroke he suffered two weeks ago. In his place for now is Budget Director Daniel Alfonso. The mayor had said earlier he expected Martinez to return by this week, but doctors felt he needed more recovery time.

Miami Herald staff writers Howard Cohen and Joey Flechas contributed to this report.

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