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Red-light camera idea being pushed as revenue source for Pasco social services

In just 18 months, Port Richey pocketed around $250,000 from red-light runners caught on camera at U.S. 19 and Ridge Road.

In eight months, Brooksville pulled in $800,000 from red-light runners at five intersections in that city.

Public safety aside, those dollar signs are hard to ignore. Which has got some people wondering:

Should Pasco County put up a few red-light cameras of its own?

Leaders with the Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco County have been quietly shopping the idea around to a handful of county officials. Their proposal: Let the revenue pay for social service programs, particularly those aimed at the problem of homelessness.

It could be a politically risky idea, given that advocates of the controversial red-light cameras emphasize the benefit to public safety — not to the bottom line.

But Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober, who also serves on the coalition's board, said he saw the potential windfall as a way to support programs for the poor and needy — especially as such programs aren't a top priority when it comes to the shrinking pot of property tax dollars.

The Homeless Coalition expects to release its 10-year plan for ending homelessness early next year. That plan includes everything from creating emergency shelter space to helping people find employment and affordable rentals. All those initiatives would need a revenue stream, especially if the county hopes to attract matching federal dollars, said Rober.

"I think it's something commissioners need to think about on a deep social level," said Rober. "What we wanted to do was go to them and say 'We need a funding source but we know you don't have a lot of revenue.' ... It's something we threw on the table for them to think about over the holidays."

Port Richey and Brooksville were among the first local governments in the state to participate. Hillsborough County crews installed six cameras over the summer and will begin writing citations this week.

Critics say the cameras are intrusive and don't reduce traffic accidents, and some studies say they may even contribute to rear-end crashes. But supporters say the cameras are deterrents for a dangerous common practice.

"If there's a tool we can use to make you be a better driver," Port Richey Police Chief David Brown said, "why not take advantage of it?"

Up-front costs were minimal in Port Richey. A private contractor installed the cameras (the city has recently added another one) and reviews the videos for offenders. A city police lieutenant reviews the video and decides whether to issue a ticket. The company, Maryland-based Traffipax, gets paid when the fines come in. For a $150 ticket, the company gets a $35 cut.

Brown said nearly 77 percent of the 4,322 citations that have been issued in Port Richey since May 2008 have been paid. That's a better than average rate, he said.

But the unpaid citations, which total around $97,000, are nearly impossible to collect. Brown said that's because the citations are not traffic fines; they are violations of a city ordinance that officials have no way of enforcing.

The state plays no role in the enforcement — it won't even allow the cameras on state-owned property along the road — though that could change.

Two companion bills sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, would give the state the power to regulate the camera programs — and collect a percentage of the revenue. Similar legislation has failed in recent years.

"It just rules out the red tape," said Melissa Wandall, president of the Stop Red Light Running Coalition of Florida. "If you have a statewide standard, then everybody has to go by those standards."

• • •

Rober and coalition president Dan Campbell have spoken to two commissioners about the idea.

Commissioner Jack Mariano said he wasn't interested. "I don't support the red-light camera thing anyway," he said.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she was intrigued by the idea and ran it by County Attorney Jeff Steinsnyder, who has some legal concerns, particularly when it comes to state officials' current stance.

"It could be a win-win, for safety and a great resource for humanitarian causes," Hildebrand said. "The concept sounded like a cool deal."

Commissioner Michael Cox said he has mixed feelings about the cameras but would entertain a proposal.

"One side of me says 'I don't like them because of the 'Big Brother is watching,' " argument, he said. On the other hand, when he owned a towing company, he saw a lot of bad accidents caused by motorists blowing through red lights.

He added: "If the revenue is going to a good cause it may be more palatable than if it's just going into a slush fund."

Commissioner Ted Schrader expressed reservations about spending local government money on the homeless programs in the first place. And he said he's hesitant to support coming up with revenue streams without talking about spending first.

"I'd have to do a more thorough investigation," he said. "I don't think it's our role to sit back and think of new ways to come up with revenue."

Pasco Sheriff Bob White, whose agency would be in charge of reviewing the camera tapes, said that he has about 15 deputies assigned to traffic enforcement — not very much for a county of nearly half a million people.

For that reason, he said, the technology could be useful.

But he pointed out that human nature can be hard to predict, and he isn't sure if the cameras would actually deter red-light running.

Still, he said, "If it saves one life, then it's worth it."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

By the numbers

$150 Fine for running a red light in Port Richey.

$250,000 Amount Port Richey made from red-light violations at a single light in the past 18 months.

$800,000 Amount Brooksville pulled in from red-light runners in eight months.

Red-light camera idea being pushed as revenue source for Pasco social services 12/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 19, 2009 3:27pm]

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