ST. PETERSBURG — For as long as there has been a red-light camera program here, controversy has surrounded it.
Those who love the cameras say they reduce accidents and make the streets safer. Those who hate them say they're a money-grab by cities and private camera operators.
Repeated efforts to kill St. Petersburg's program have failed — though that could change depending on the outcome of next week's City Council elections in which six of eight candidates vying for seats have said they oppose the cameras.
That meshes with the results of a new poll showing that 54 percent of St. Petersburg residents oppose the cameras. Meanwhile, 42 percent of residents favor the cameras and 4 percent were unsure, according to the results of a Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9/WUSF Public Media poll.
"I think they should get rid of them," said Patricia Patterson, a 60-year-old home health nurse. "I think it's just a way to make money."
A red-light camera ticket is $158. Of that, the state gets $83 and the remaining $75 is split between municipalities and the camera vendor.
Patterson said she spends a lot of time on the road for her job and it makes her angry every time she comes up to an intersection with a camera. Even though she has not been ticketed, she said she knows dozens of people who have.
"I've always thought it was just a way for big brother to keep an eye on us, and that's exactly what it is," she said, adding that she'd like to see the city scrap the program.
Many others agree, according to the poll, which surveyed 809 St. Petersburg residents from Oct. 17 to 21 and has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
"I'm not surprised by those results at all," said City Council member Wengay Newton, who has been a consistent camera critic. "The fact is, these things aren't about safety. These things are about making money."
Newton has tried numerous times to end the program. And when the issue comes up for a vote — as it did most recently this summer — he usually has been joined by council members Steve Kornell and Leslie Curran.
Curran is leaving the council because of term limits. But Newton could have more help on his side.
Carolyn Fries and Darden Rice, who are vying for Curran's District 4 seat in the Nov. 5 election, both said they oppose the program. So do District 8 candidates Amy Foster and Steve Galvin, who want the seat held by council member Jeff Danner, who also is term-limited. Danner has supported the cameras.
Council candidates Sharon Russ in District 6 and Lorraine Margeson in District 2 also oppose the cameras — but they are facing incumbents Karl Nurse and Jim Kennedy, who have voted to keep the program.
Mayor Bill Foster and challenger Rick Kriseman support red-light cameras and are unlikely to make changes to the program. But a majority of the City Council has the power to end the contract with the camera operator.
Opposition to the cameras appears to be mounting elsewhere.
Last week, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told an audience at a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon he was "100 percent" against them.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes filed a bill last month to ban the cameras, used in at least 76 jurisdictions in Florida. The Republican lawmaker, who represents St. Petersburg, said he feels the camera program is about revenue, not safety.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, said 66-year-old resident Don Paul Smith.
"It does bring in money, and I know there's a controversy about why municipalities are doing this," Smith said. "Those are valid observations. But in the long run, I think it's worth it. I think they probably do a public service."
Drew Beyer, a 39-year-old restaurant manager, said the cameras caused him to change his behavior. After the city installed them, he bought software for his GPS that will tell him when he's approaching a red-light camera.
That didn't stop his 17-year-old son from getting a ticket a little more than a year ago.
"I like the red-light cameras as long as the money is going to the city," he said.
Leonard Climes thinks the city gets enough of his money. The 62-year-old retired railroad worker called the cameras a "gimmick." He said if the city wanted to make intersections safer, it could adjust yellow lights.
Plus, he said, the city already has a program to catch red-light runners: police officers.
"I'd like to see them go away," Climes said of the cameras.
Newton said if given the opportunity, he'll bring up killing the cameras again.
"I just am hoping the incoming council members will be with me," he said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.