ST. PETERSBURG — City officials are preparing to approve a much-anticipated contract on Thursday: They will hire a company to install and operate cameras at up to 20 intersections to nab motorists who run red lights. Those recorded as violators will be fined $158. Those who don't pay could be fined up to $500 and have their licenses suspended.
But in awarding this $8.8 million contract, Mayor Bill Foster has chosen to forgo the city's typical competitive bid process, where officials seek and evaluate proposals from vendors. Instead, Foster has chosen a method called "piggy-backing," where St. Petersburg will hire a company by using an existing contract between a city and a vendor.
Foster is recommending that the City Council approve — as St. Petersburg's own red light camera contract — a 2010 contract between Miami and American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company.
It's a maneuver allowed by state law, and Foster said it's intended to save on the cost and time of a regular bidding process, which can take months for employees to review and appraise the various job proposals.
But "piggy-backing" isn't typical either. Louis Moore, the city's director of purchasing, estimates one out of eight city purchases is done by this method. The vast majority are done by the regular bidding process.
Considering that the city is tapping a company to oversee a program that will fine motorists millions, council member Wengay Newton said he doesn't like skipping the regular bid process. He said Foster is doing it because he wants to install the cameras quickly so that they're up before state lawmakers can pass legislation banning the cameras.
"I think it's wrong," said Newton, the only council member to oppose the red light cameras. "We have an open bid process. This is a major rush job."
The agreement between St. Petersburg and the company states that it automatically terminates if lawmakers end up banning cameras this year.
But lobbyists are trying to insert a clause in the bill that would honor all existing contracts with red light camera vendors, rendering St. Petersburg's clause obsolete, said Andrew Noble, president of Gatso USA, a competitor.
"It seems strange that the city didn't go with the normal purchasing procedure," Noble said. "My sense is that they're doing this so, if the legislation passes, they have a signed contract and they can't be stopped."
Noble said city officials should have been alarmed by the 37 lawsuits pending against it that the company disclosed to Miami officials in a July report.
"That should have been a red flag," Noble said.
It shouldn't be, countered Charlie Territo, a spokesman for the company. Nearly all of those lawsuits were filed before July, when state lawmakers legalized the use of the red light cameras. Some of those are still pending, but others have been settled. Only one lawsuit has been filed since July, a period in which it installed about 40 systems throughout Florida, Territo said.
Objections by competitors like Gatso are to be expected, but the company's popularity in Florida speaks for itself, he said.
"St. Petersburg, like 70 other cities in Florida, has decided that ATS is a company that can best provide what they are looking for," Territo said.
American Traffic Solutions is the largest such company in the United States. It has contracts with nearly 300 local governments in 22 states.
The company has a fine reputation and has been adequately vetted by Miami, said Joe Kubicki, St. Petersburg's transportation and parking director.
"It's an extremely competitive industry," Kubicki said. "I'm disappointed we're hearing that vendors are unhappy, but not surprised. They fight to the very end to get a contract."
Still, because of the informal process that the city is using, it's hard to find who will be held accountable if things go awry.
Conflicting studies into the use of the cameras have called into question whether they make streets safer. A number of cities shuttered them after a backlash from motorists. In other cities, the costs of the programs have risen as they've had to devote more attorneys and cops to get tickets paid.
Another red light camera company, ACS, said it can do the St. Petersburg job for $140,400 less. Kubicki said he doubted that was true, though he couldn't provide any estimates comparing the two.
The city won't know the costs until the intersections are chosen, he said. American Traffic Solutions will help choose the intersections.
Kubicki sat on a committee of upper-level employees who recommended the company to Foster, who endorsed it and sent it to the council for approval.
Foster said he has no doubt cameras will make the streets safer. He said he doesn't need to review studies that have been critical of their use. He said he's spoken with "people in the industry, including chiefs, city managers, county administrators" in places that use them, and they told him they work.
Asked who specifically he spoke with, Foster demurred.
"I'm not going to get into that," he said. "You can call around and find someone who will say, 'Yeah, I talked with Mayor Foster.' But I'm not dragging others into this. I've seen the data that says it's reduced intersection accidents. I'm tired of almost being hit every day by people running red lights."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org