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Scrutiny intensifies on St. Pete's red-light cameras

ST. PETERSBURG — For two years, red-light cameras have been under a near-constant glare of scrutiny.

So far, the program has survived every attempt to squash it.

Yet the cameras, strongly supported by Mayor Rick Kriseman, the Police Department and city staff, appeared to be on shaky ground during a nearly three-hour workshop on Thursday, as council members and a frequent critic again raised questions about operations and cost.

Even council member Karl Nurse, who repeatedly voted in the past to keep the program, predicted it would end soon — and not necessarily because of politics.

Camera citations have decreased steadily in the two years they've been in place at 10 intersections around the city. Practically speaking, Nurse said, the cameras are going to start costing the city more money than they bring in.

"It's a radical change in the number of tickets we're writing," Nurse said. "I can do math. It's going to be gone by the end of this year."

In January, for example, officials issued 1,043 violations. A year earlier, it had been 2,495 tickets in that same month, and 3,337 in January 2012.

Those are all good signs, city staff said Thursday and last month, when they issued a report on the second-year performance of the cameras.

But Nurse said by his calculations, the city netted just about $11,000 from those tickets in January. (The city keeps only a small portion of the $158 drivers pay.)

With Nurse now raising more questions about the cameras, it appears the cameras may be losing favor with a slight majority of the council. Council members Wengay Newton and Steve Kornell have been against them for a while, and newcomers Amy Foster and Darden Rice also have said they are leaning toward getting rid of them. Bill Dudley and Jim Kennedy have supported them. Charlie Gerdes has raised questions but said he supports them.

Kriseman, who spoke at the beginning and end of the meeting, said he believes in the program.

"The issue of red-light cameras has always been about public safety," he said. "If (people) don't feel safe and actually aren't safe, our quality of life will suffer."

The mayor said although he's not looking to add cameras, he would be open to moving them if there is a need at other intersections.

"I hope the trend continues as we're seeing now," Kriseman said. "The goal has always been to change behavior and then take them down."

Foster, who was skeptical of the program even before she took office this year, said she appreciated the information staff presented. But she was still frustrated that she had gotten different answers about certain aspects of the program, especially when it came to issues resident and frequent camera critic Matt Florell raised regarding yellow light timing.

Florell went to city staff several weeks ago and told them the yellow light timing at a particular intersection — First Avenue S and 34th Street — was calculated incorrectly. The mistake, he said, means 778 drivers were cited unfairly.

City officials on Friday acknowledged they changed the timing at that intersection, and two others this month, after studying the issue themselves.

But they said that doesn't mean there are huge problems with the cameras. They got support from Dudley and Kennedy.

Newton, perhaps the loudest critic on the council, once again raised the idea of giving those people refunds. He got support from Gerdes.

"We made a mistake," Gerdes said.

Kriseman dismissed the idea. He said the yellow times — even the miscalculated ones — were approved by the state.

He and city staff said it would be unlikely the city could give those drivers the full $158 back — because most of it goes to others anyway.

The mayor did, however, say he would be open to exploring whether the city should put the money from the cameras into a fund dedicated to safety or education efforts, an idea floated by council member Darden Rice.

Because it was a workshop, no vote was taken on the future of the cameras contract. Newton said he's sure one will come up again, though.

By the end of the afternoon, exhaustion seemed to set in.

"I don't want to discuss it every single week," council member Kornell said. "There's other issues."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

Scrutiny intensifies on St. Pete's red-light cameras 02/27/14 [Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 10:00pm]

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