KENNETH CITY — This town was the first to bring red-light cameras to Pinellas County. Now it looks to be the last to comply with a state law requiring municipalities with cameras to provide a faster way for motorists to appeal their tickets.
That's good for drivers — missing Monday's deadline to establish an appeals process means Kenneth City can't ticket offenders until an appeals process is in place.
But it could be bad for Kenneth City taxpayers who are still on the hook for the $31,250 monthly payments the town makes to American Traffic Solutions for the seven cameras.
Council members think they have a way around the problem. They've authorized the town attorney to try to negotiate a deal with ATS to delay two months of payments, which is about how long officials estimate it will take to get an appeals process in place. In exchange, they hope to tack two months onto the contract, which is due to expire in September 2015.
"We have a lot of challenges to overcome," said council member Adam Mayefsky, who proposed the moratorium. "We're looking at a lag time no matter what we do."
Under current state law, motorists who receive a citation based on the camera's evidence can go to traffic court only after the $158 fine has risen to $264. But changes to state law require cities to provide an earlier way to appeal the ticket. The city has several choices of how to do that, including creating its own magistrate to handle the cases or piggybacking onto another municipality's system.
The Kenneth City council is split on which option is best.
The possibility of having to create a town court along with the paperwork and expense that goes along with it prompted Mayor Teresa Zemaitis to suggest it might be time to simply walk away from the ATS contract by eliminating the red-light cameras.
The cameras, she said, are problematic in several ways:
• The data provided by ATS is contradictory and hard to decipher, so it's impossible for town officials to track offenses and the income from tickets. There's a "huge disconnect," she said. "We don't know who owes us money." She said complaints to ATS have gone unheeded.
"We've been doing this for 2 ½ years (and) we've not gotten an improved accounting system," she said.
• It is unclear whether the cameras have improved safety or eliminated accidents. It appears, Zemaitis said, the town is merely using them as a source of revenue. The town has netted about $628,341 since the first camera was installed in November 2010. During that same time period, ATS has received about $961,014 and the state of Florida's cut has totaled about $1.45 million.
• At least one set of cameras — at 58th Street N and 46th Avenue — are operating at a loss of about $464 a month, a total of $73,425 from February 2012 to May. But the contract prevents the town from removing them.
• The cameras contribute to Kenneth City's image as a speed trap and encourage drivers to take other routes. That's bad not only for the town's image, Zemaitis said, but for businesses that lose potential customers.
Council member Phil Redisch sided with Zemaitis during a workshop Wednesday. Calling the cameras "another cash cow," he said the cameras affect everyone, resident and visitor alike.
"There's no compassion anywhere along the way," Redisch said.
But Joanne DeSimone, who oversees the Police Department, and Wanda Dudley disagreed.
"The reason you get a ticket is you broke the law," DeSimone said. The cameras and tickets are a "public safety issue … not to raise revenues."
Mayefsky opposed canceling the contract now because the town could be liable for about $864,000 in damages for the breach. But Mayefsky said he might be willing to let the contract lapse without renewal when its term is up. That would give the town, he said, ample opportunity to try to answer questions officials have about the cameras.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.