Miami-Dade County

South Florida cities find new ways to get money out of red light programs

When South Florida cities began installing red-light cameras several years ago, most expected a revenue bump along with increased intersection safety.

But while most studies show few crashes at intersections with red-light cameras, many cities haven’t seen the money they expected, and at least one is several thousand dollars in the hole.

Now, some cities plan to use new changes in Florida’s red-light camera laws to wring more money out of strapped camera programs.

The new legislation, which went into effect July 1, requires municipalities with the cameras to set up local hearing boards for people who get violation notices and want to fight them. It gives drivers more time to appeal, and doesn’t force them to wait until after payment is due and their $158 notice of violation becomes a $264 Uniform Traffic Citation in order to contest it.

But the new regulations also let cities collect up to an extra $250 in administrative fees from people who fight their citation and lose — bringing the total cost of their ticket as high as $408 — and some cities are counting on that money.

The possibility of challenging a ticket and losing is keeping some drivers from even trying.

At a red-light camera citation hearing at the Broward County South Regional Courthouse Thursday, a crowd of drivers with red-light camera citations thinned as drivers took a last-minute deal offered by Traffic Hearing Officer Ellen Tilles: they could pay $190 and not fight their citations, or they could fight them and risk paying $263 if they lost.

Few rejected the $190 deal.

“I’m just going to pay it off,” said Hollywood resident Nathaly Simprevil, 23.

Simprevil said she wasn’t driving her car the day it was cited, but fighting the citation wasn’t worth risking an extra $73.

Some traffic lawyers also don’t like the idea of each city holding its own traffic hearing board, saying that as citation revenues drop, cities will have an incentive to rule against drivers.

After all, the hearing officer judging the case would be paid by the city that issued the citation, said attorney Ted Hollander, of the Miami-based Ticket Clinic law firm.

“That’s a real conflict of interest,” he said.

And because courtroom rules of evidence won’t apply in the administrative hearings, said Hollander, traffic attorneys won’t be able to argue that a camera’s footage wasn’t obtained or handled properly and shouldn’t be admitted as evidence, a common tactic they’ve used in the past to get red-light camera cases dismissed.

It might be easier for a driver to appeal a citation under the new rules, he said, but it will be harder for them to win.

It’s not only the ticketed drivers who are paying out big money. Administering the program can be costly to the municipalities.

Overall, Pembroke Pines has lost more money than it has made.

The city started its red-light camera program in 2010, and after paying Arizona-based camera company American Traffic Solutions to install the cameras, made a total of about $345,400 in citation revenue in the years since. But all of that money, and more, disappeared into wages for police officers who reviewed the cameras’ footage and lawyers who had to fight drivers in court, leaving the city with an actual deficit of about $432,000, said Pembroke Pines Police spokeswoman Katrina Fox.

Part of the loss comes from Pembroke Pines’ monthly per-camera payments to ATS, which totaled about $95,500 per month last year for the city’s 22 cameras. Pembroke Pines was left with just about $19,800 last year after paying ATS.

Margate, with only four cameras, did much better, with almost $336,300 left last year after its $19,000 monthly payments to ATS.

In Davie, the Town Council talked about ripping Davie’s cameras out soon after they were installed in 2011, citing concerns about legal challenges and potential costs associated with the program.

But instead, Davie renegotiated with ATS, setting up a contract that lets the city use citation revenue to cover its costs before making any payments to ATS.

Some other municipalities, including West Park, Key Biscayne and El Portal, have negotiated similar contracts with ATS that prevent them from losing money on their camera programs.

Davie’s red-light camera program doesn’t make much money — about $31,000 — but it also doesn’t lose any.

“The purpose of the cameras was not to make money,” said Davie Mayor Judy Paul. “It was to make the streets safer.”

Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the declining citation numbers prove the cameras make intersections safer by making drivers more cautious.

“Study after study shows that they not only reduce red-light running violations, but they also reduce crashes, including fatal ones,” he said.

Information compiled by Miami Beach’s Police Department also showed that the cameras increased safety where they were installed, said city spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez.

Miami Beach’s cameras are run by Xerox State and Local Solutions, and the city was left with only a little over $700 last year after paying the company’s fees.

“We’re not in this program for the money, we’re in this for the safety issue,” Rodriguez said. “The objective is less accidents, less injuries. We don’t look at it as a revenue generator.”

Miami Police also reported crashes dropping consistently at intersections where the cameras were installed.

In 2012, crashes at red-light camera intersections in Miami decreased by almost 8 percent while crashes citywide dropped about 3 percent, according to the Miami Police Department’s 2012 annual report.

In 2011, crashes at red-light camera intersections in Miami dropped about 10 percent.

One of Miami’s cameras nabbed Miami resident Angel Pittman last fall, and she said the experience changed the way she drives.

“It did what it was supposed to do,” said Pittman, 40. “It caused me to use caution at a big intersection.”

Pittman paid her notice of violation, calling it a “painful lesson,” but fair.

Cameras in busy areas of major cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which bring in many drivers from out of town, usually turn out more violation notices than smaller municipalities frequented largely by local residents, who know where the cameras are and take steps to avoid tripping them.

Miami is already predicting it will collect about $4.2 million in revenue from the camera program in the 2013 fiscal year. That’s up from $3.66 million last year.

Despite the financial boon, City Commissioners have considered scrapping the program altogether, rather than creating the special hearing boards required by the new law. The topic will be voted on at the next commission meeting this Thursday.

Doral, as well, is considering dropping its program for the same reason. City leaders will discuss the issue in August.

On the other hand, Fort Lauderdale, which made $707,300 last year, is so happy with the program, it plans to expand. Three new camera locations will be added to the 29 the city already has. Those cameras should be operational in August, said city spokesman Matt Little.