PORT RICHEY — A South Florida judge ruled against them. A state representative moved to ban them. A company that installs them even had concerns.
But the opposition to red-light cameras hasn't slowed the Port Richey City Council, which on Tuesday voted for more cameras, more monitored intersections and a decadelong contract to continue the controversial system.
The city began using the cameras two years ago, becoming the third in the state behind Apopka and Gulf Breeze to watch for red-light runners and mail out fines to the vehicles' registered owners.
The council saw the camera network as an easy sell, believing it could deter dangerous driving, reserve police officers for patrol and tame what American Traffic Solutions representatives had called some of the worst intersections in the country.
It didn't hurt that fines, now at $150 per violation, would earn about $250,000 for the city's general fund within the system's first 18 months of operation.
But the city hit its first speed bump when ATS representatives clashed with then-City Manager Richard Reade, who said ATS had been "dragging their feet" in installing new cameras, City Attorney Michael Brannigan said. ATS backed out of its contract in August 2008, and the cameras were removed.
A second agreement, signed last year, allowed Traffipax to install new red-light cameras while taking a $35 cut per fine, $5 cheaper than ATS had charged. But the five-year deal began to unravel when Traffipax asked to delay new installations until questions of the cameras' legality had been answered.
"Our position on that is, that's not part of our contract," Brannigan said. "We consider that a breach of agreement."
City staff wanted something quicker and opted to back out of its contract with Traffipax.
"We've been limping along on this public safety issue," City Manager Ellen Posivach said Tuesday. "This is unacceptable."
The city contacted ATS and offered it a new 10-year contract to install six cameras at the company's expense. ATS, which manages 60 contracts statewide, was "happy to step back in," spokeswoman Bethany R. Leytham wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
The city's camera coverage under the deal will expand to intersections at U.S. 19 and Grand Boulevard, U.S. 19 and Ridge Road, and Ridge Road and Leo Kidd Avenue.
But challenges to the cameras' legality remain. A Miami-Dade judge last month ruled that Aventura could not issue fines based solely on video footage. More than a dozen similar lawsuits have been filed statewide, including a class-action suit in Temple Terrace. And in Tallahassee, a state representative has proposed a ban on the cameras, calling them an extra tax meant to pump up budgets, not protect drivers.
Another proposed bill, which passed a House committee Tuesday, would allow and standardize the cameras' use statewide. But even that could prove an obstacle to Port Richey's plans, the council said, because it would split the ticketed revenue among health care facilities and the state and earn the city $35 less per fine.
"Having cameras already up before legislation is passed would be a huge advantage," City Council member Perry Bean said. The long-term contract could be leverage, council members said, allowing the city's agreement to be grandfathered into law.
Though state support could cut into their profits, Brannigan said it could bring one benefit: stronger enforcement. Using the unmanned cameras, Port Richey police are only allowed to issue citations for breaking city statute, not traffic tickets for breaking state law. That means only the city's 3,500 residents face a lien penalty for nonpayment.
Traffipax is operating one camera at Richey Drive near U.S. 19, producing about one clear violation a day, police Lt. Don Young said. Previously under ATS, which had a camera pointed at southbound U.S. 19 traffic near Ridge Road, police had been seeing about 80 red-light violations a day.
About 70 percent of those fines have been paid, Young said, and the city has begun talking with collection agencies to drum up more.
ATS predicts its new cameras, beginning with the southbound lanes of U.S. 19 at Ridge Road, will be online within a few weeks.
Council member Steven O'Neill said he was excited about the new cameras and ending the "completely bobbled" deal with Traffipax.
And of the criticism levied at the cameras?
"I don't think anything of it," Posivach said. "People can say anything they want."
Drew Harwell can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.