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Red-light camera provider plays for keeps; no additional warnings

Driving north into Brooksville on U.S. 41, you see a sign warning of reduced speed limits, a sign showing that reduced limit, a sign letting you know you're approaching the State Road 50 truck route, then a bunch of signs for nearby businesses and, among all this, an image of a traffic light with the caption "camera enforced."

It's the only warning to motorists that the city has recently installed red-light cameras at the intersection, said Brooksville City Council member Joe Bernardini, and "you have to look to find it."

Bernardini, who has long been the council's main opponent of red-light cameras, more recently has emerged as the main proponent of warning drivers before slapping them with a $158 fine.

It's the fair thing to do, he said. But more than that, it's a test of the city's claim that these cameras aren't about pulling in as many fines and as much revenue as possible; they're about public safety.

If the idea is to make people more careful when they approach intersections, to think twice before they blow through red lights, then telling drivers they will be fined is as good as actually fining them, right?

Mayor Joe Johnston III seemed to think so. He was the one who, in Bernardini's absence two weeks ago, persuaded other council members to put the matter on the agenda.

They were supposed to consider a 30-day grace period for the 14 new cameras that a private contractor, Sensys, is planning to install at five more city intersections. During that time, violators would get warnings rather than tickets.

This would not only let people know about potential fines at new camera-equipped intersections, but also remind them that cameras have been in place at three others for several weeks.

It's needed, Bernardini said, because the cameras were in place for a while, then they were gone, and now they're back. The grace period could also help make up for those warning signs that are discreet enough — "practically invisible," one motorist called them — to seem just a little bit sneaky.

But the entire issue was quickly dropped at Monday's council meeting, never coming close to a vote.

Why? Money, of course. Elected officials may have to pretend this is all a campaign against ugly T-bone crashes. Sensys doesn't.

It sent the city a letter saying that the city has already issued enough notices about the cameras, including ones enclosed with utility bills. If the city wanted to send out warnings instead of tickets, it would have to cover the added cost of processing them, about $58,000. Finally, the letter said, "the revenue neutrality provision of the Agreement could not apply to this warning phase."

Which means we at Sensys don't want to give up even a penny. Which is hardly surprising because that's what private enterprise is about.

Those of you who read this column might remember I've grudgingly accepted red-light cameras. The city needs the money from the fines. And if the state grabs more than half of every ticket, well, okay, it needs the money, too.

Yes it's a tax. And not an especially fair one. So that's not the lesson here. Instead it's this old but always timely one: When you bring in private, for-profit companies to help provide public services, fairness might not be the first priority.

Red-light camera provider plays for keeps; no additional warnings 07/05/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 5, 2012 8:30pm]
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