ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council backed Mayor Bill Foster in approving an $8.8 million contract with a company that will start what is sure to become one of the most high-profile programs in recent city history.
It voted 5-3 to award the contract to American Traffic Solutions, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company, to install cameras at up to 20 intersections to record motorists who don't stop at red lights. Violators will be fined $158. If they don't pay, the fines can climb up to $500 and their licenses could be suspended.
With the vote, motorists in the city will start getting tickets as soon as mid July.
Council president Jim Kennedy and Jeff Danner, Bill Dudley, Karl Nurse and Herb Polson voted to hire ATS. Leslie Curran, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton objected to the way ATS was hired and voted against the contract.
Unlike most vendors hired by the city, ATS was hired through a process called "piggybacking." It's a method that allows the city to hire ATS through an existing contract the vendor signed with Miami in 2010.
The maneuver, which is permitted under state law, expedites the process by letting city officials skip the more typical vetting process of reviewing competing bids, which can take months.
ATS is one of the largest companies in the growing industry of red-light cameras. It has installed its cameras in 70 communities across Florida, including Kenneth City, Hillsborough County and Tampa. Its reputation, along with the vetting that was done by Miami officials, was enough due diligence for Foster and his staff.
"This contract is fully studied, it was competitively bid (in Miami)," Foster said. "This Miami contract is exactly what we were looking for."
The money raised by the tickets will pay for the cost of the system, so the city won't pay anything. It can also opt out after the first year, or if state lawmakers pass a law banning the use of red-light cameras.
But Joanne Diorio, vice president of sales for ACS, a competitor, told the council it should show more caution and bid out the job so other firms like her company could compete.
"You'd receive a better contract for the city," Diorio said. "This is a large contract. It's highly unusual for the city to circumvent the normal bidding process."
While piggybacking isn't typical, it's not unusual, said Louis Moore, the city's director of purchasing. One in eight contracts is awarded this way, representing about 30 percent of the money the city awards in contracts.
Curran noted that in many cases, piggyback contracts are associated with commodities that are more familiar, such as cars. Kornell said he didn't believe the city should rely on another city to vet contracts.
"As confident as I feel about our city, I don't know if I'd put that stamp of approval on Miami," Kornell said. "I don't know anyone in Miami."
But City Attorney John Wolfe said the city may not get as good a deal if it bids it out.
"The whole idea of piggybacking is to save the taxpayers money," said Wolfe, who estimated it would take his legal staff more than nine months to prepare and conduct a bid process. "Don't be surprised if you put this out for bid and you don't get anything near this contract."
Dudley was satisfied that the contract was fully vetted and a good deal for the city.
"It's time to move on," he said. "We're beating this dead horse."
The discussion lasted an hour and led to an outcome that disappointed Newton, the only council member to oppose the cameras. He said piggybacking circumvented the council and sapped its power to serve as a check on the mayor's powers.
"We don't need a council," he told Wolfe after the vote. "Just a mayor and a staff, and that's it."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com.