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Brooksville's red-light cameras only fleece drivers

One of the revenue-generating red-light cameras is at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Broad Street in Brooksville.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

One of the revenue-generating red-light cameras is at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Broad Street in Brooksville.

Sorry to dredge up outdated slang, but this is the only word or verbal sound effect that adequately describes the city of Brooksville's windfall from its new red-light cameras:

Cha-CHING!!

Through the end of June, after slightly more than two months in operation, the city had issued or was in the process of issuing $230,625 worth of tickets for running red lights. More than 80 percent of these were for infractions at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and S Broad Street, where the city installed the first of five cameras.

This, remember, is in a city with a current general fund of $7.3 million and an expected $572,000 shortfall in property tax revenue next year.

That's not a dent in the budget, but a sinkhole. And in this context, the potential income generated by five cameras over the course of a full year is not a dab of caulk, but a couple of truckloads of grout.

Yes, Brooksville, like every city in Florida, needs to find new sources of funds other than taxes, based on fluctuating real estate values.

But it's not right to do it by blanketing our city with traffic tickets — so far, about one for every four residents — or by sending unsuspecting out-of-towners expensive souvenirs of their visits to the city.

Howard Moore, whose wife, Teri, was one of two drivers to appeal tickets — unsuccessfully — last week, worries that the cameras will give the city a reputation similar to notorious speed traps such as Waldo in North Florida.

"Do we want to turn into a place people want to avoid?'' he asked.

Because I've written a couple of unfavorable columns recently about city leaders — and because most of them are doing a better job than most of their predecessors — let me insert a plug for the city's new curbside recycling program, which is both overdue and great.

Let me also say that police Chief George Turner makes a lot of good points in defense of his cameras.

The city doesn't keep all of the money from the red-light tickets. It turns over $40 from each one to American Traffic Solutions, which installed the cameras; similar programs are in place in several other places in Florida, including Hillsborough County and Port Richey.

Police officers review the video for each incident and say they issue tickets only when the evidence is clear. These carry a far lighter penalty — $125 — than citations written by law enforcement officers for the same offense: a fine of $219 plus four points against drivers' licenses.

Finally, the number of citations per camera is already dropping and will continue to as people become aware they are being watched. Once that happens, the city will have achieved its goal of making drivers safer.

"The main focus was not to generate funds,'' Turner said. "It is a traffic safety initiative.''

Which is why, originally, I was all for it.

But the more I looked into it, the more I found not to like.

Drivers busted by camera are presumed guilty even more so than usual traffic offenders because they must pay $50 to appeal their cases before a special master.

Also, it doesn't matter whether you were driving, because under the ordinance your car or truck is the guilty party.

"My favorite line is … 'each owner (must) make certain that his or her motor vehicle adheres to the requirements of this section,' " Brooksville lawyer and former County Judge Peyton Hyslop said.

"Bad car. Bad, bad car.''

You do retain the right of ratting out whoever else might have been driving at the time — friend, neighbor, husband or wife — which is great if you happen to be nostalgic for the old Eastern Bloc.

Finally, about 70 drivers so far have been ticketed for failing to come to a complete stop when turning right on red, most of them from U.S. 41 onto Dr. M.L. King, where the traffic flow coming from little-used Chatman Boulevard on their left was virtually nil.

For this, Moore's wife, a substitute teacher, was fined about two days' pay.

"This is not a d--- joke,'' he said.

Still, I want to give the program a chance if it can make our roads safer.

Get rid of the fee to challenge tickets. Think about a two-tiered system so the people who aren't public menaces — the ones rolling through right-hand turns — aren't being fined as if they are.

And, if the number of traffic tickets doesn't drop substantially when the cameras come up for their six-month review in September, all the fines should be lowered.

Remember, the idea is to discourage unsafe drivers, not fleece them.

Brooksville's red-light cameras only fleece drivers 07/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 4, 2009 9:41am]
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