PORT RICHEY — With budget season approaching, most cities are cutting costs and tightening their belts.
Port Richey's no exception. But the city of 3,200 does have one source of streaming revenue that most cities don't have: a red-light camera system.
Since May 2, when the Police Department began issuing tickets, dozens of citations have been issued. The grand total for the city's general fund? $15,130.
"It's not large, but it's certainly helpful," said Mayor Richard Rober. "It's absolutely a cushion."
While new bulletproof vests for officers or a fire engine are much-needed items that could be purchased using red-light camera revenue, Rober cautioned against spending that money before budget talks start later this month.
He said the number of tickets written each month varies, so cameras aren't a predictable form of revenue.
"With the funds that might come in, we have to be careful with them," Rober said. "They aren't guaranteed."
Sherri Parker, 47, of Port Richey was taking her friend's son to work one morning when she sailed through a light.
Parker had heard about the camera at Ridge Road and the southbound lanes of U.S. 19 but had forgotten it was there.
"It had changed yellow, but the speed I was going, I didn't have time to stop," she said. "I was like, 'Oh, God. I'm going to get a ticket now.' "
She did — for $125.
When Port Richey installed its red-light camera, it became the first city in Pasco and the third statewide, after Gulf Breeze and Apopka.
Since Apopka's two cameras went up in July 2007, the city has issued 845 citations at $125 each. Like Port Richey, $85 of that goes to the city's general fund, and the rest to American Traffic Solutions, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
So far, $71,825 has been generated from Apopka's cameras, with the majority of tickets written during the first few months of the system's inception.
State law bans the cameras on state roads, so ATS negotiates with property owners near the intersections where cities want the cameras installed. ATS is now talking with property owners about installing cameras at the city's other two intersections — Grand Boulevard and U.S. 19 and Leo Kidd Avenue and Ridge Road.
Supporters of the camera system say it saves lives by cracking down on red-light runners and generating revenue for places like Port Richey. Opponents say the system is a cash cow for cities.
Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association in Waunakee, Wis., has been critical of the cameras because he says people slam on their brakes and cause rear-end collisions before the light turns red.
"If you've got a problem with people entering (the intersection) just as the light is changing, you increase that yellow-light time, and the problem goes away," he said.
Meanwhile, local drivers are learning about the cameras the hard way.
"I didn't know it was there," said Ronald Howart, 64, of New Port Richey, who was headed home from Wal-Mart when he ran the red light and also got a $125 ticket.
"I guess Big Brother is watching."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.