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St. Petersburg to cut red-light cameras by Sept. 30 — at the latest

ST. PETERSBURG — Almost three years after embracing red-light cameras, St. Petersburg is now the first city in the region to turn its back on them.

With a 6-2 vote, the City Council decided Thursday to kill the controversial camera program by Sept. 30.

If the city's 22 cameras, now placed at 10 intersections, fail to be profitable before that date, they will come down sooner.

"The program obviously had flaws from the beginning," said council member Wengay Newton, who finally prevailed in his years-long quest to get rid of the cameras.

Newton also thanked Mayor Rick Kriseman, who a day earlier issued a memo saying the city would get rid of the program if it no longer paid for itself, which officials projected would happen by the fall anyway.

It was a pivoting moment for the mayor, who has been a camera advocate for a decade. A week ago, he had talked of moving the cameras to other intersections.

At Thursday's meeting, Kriseman said his position on the cameras is the same — that they work — but the fact that there are fewer tickets and therefore less revenue shows the program has changed behavior. That, was the ultimate goal, Kriseman said.

In the final vote, council members Karl Nurse and Charlie Gerdes — who both have supported the cameras in the past — voted with their colleagues to kill the program. Council Chairman Bill Dudley and Jim Kennedy were the only two who voted against the measure.

Still unresolved, however, is the issue of refunds for hundreds of drivers who received violations for running red lights at intersections with improper yellow light times — an issue raised by local camera critic Matt Florell.

Florell told officials the mistake in timing on 34th Street intersections at First Avenue S, 22nd Avenue S and 38th Avenue N, meant tickets for about 2,500 people.

"If everything was working perfectly, they never would have gotten them in the first place," Florell said.

Several council members have said they are open to the idea of refunds, but it's unclear how the city would do that, given that it only keeps about $21 of the $158 ticket. The rest is sent to the state and the camera vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions.

The council voted 7-1 to bring the matter up at a future workshop. The city's legal team was asked to provide options, which would likely include what, if any, portion the city could return. Some people have suggested just focusing on what the city kept, which, using Florell's figures, would equal about $52,500.

Kriseman has said he is against giving refunds.

Kennedy said he was surprised by the mayor's proposal this week. He and Gerdes both said they thought it was "inconsistent" to shutter the program in the name of revenue when officials have said the concern is public safety.

"To me, even if there's a small cost to them, it's all about safety," Kennedy said.

St. Petersburg has had its cameras since 2011, and scrutiny of them has rarely ceased.

In the first two years, the cameras generated $841,862 for the city's general fund, according to a report released in January. Crashes at intersections fell and so did tickets.

Recently, officials began asking when the program would cease to pay for itself. Nurse expressed concern that in January, for example, there were only 1,043 citations issued, netting the city about $11,000.

Other cities have seen similar patterns, but have not gotten rid of them altogether (although this week, the Brooksville City Council declined to extend its contract with camera vendor Sensys America.)

In Tampa, officials actually added more cameras recently.

"We have no plans to get rid of the red-light camera program," Tampa city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said Thursday. "They are changing behavior and keeping our roads safer."

From late 2012 through the end of 2013, the number of cameras deployed in Tampa rose from 33 to 42, but both the number of citations issued and net revenues to the city generally declined. Net revenues for the month of December were $26,104, the lowest recorded during that 15-month period. By comparison, the month with the highest net revenue to the city was May 2013, with $241,986.

ATS, which also has the Tampa contract and several others in Florida, said St. Petersburg's program worked. "It's somewhat ironic that the same individuals who complain that cameras generate too much revenue are the same individuals that oppose them when they don't generate enough," spokesman Charles Territo said in a statement.

St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice said she believes that the argument for red-light cameras is powerful but that the city could have managed the program better.

"All of us up here are concerned with public safety," she said. "But we're also concerned with something else: fairness, trust and perception."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow her on Twitter @cornandpotatoes.

.FAST FACTS

Bye-bye, cameras

Several Tampa Bay communities have red-light cameras, but St. Petersburg is the first one to get rid of them. Others that have them:

Tampa

Temple Terrace

Hillsborough County

Port Richey

New Port Richey

Kenneth City

South Pasadena

Gulfport

Clearwater

Brooksville

Oldsmar

St. Petersburg to cut red-light cameras by Sept. 30 — at the latest 03/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 10:47pm]

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