Sunday, January 21, 2018
Transportation

Clearwater, Oldsmar to stick with red-light cameras for now

CLEARWATER — Red-light cameras are under scrutiny in Tallahassee and on the way out in St. Petersburg, but Clearwater leaders say they aren't in any rush to shutter their city's limited program.

However, whether to renew the contract once the current one expires could be another matter.

"Red-light cameras aren't long for the city of Clearwater," predicted City Council member Jay Polglaze.

Mayor George Cretekos also opposes red-light cameras in the city, but three other council members aren't staking out a firm position yet.

When a new council member is sworn in later this month, only two members will remain who voted on the 2011 contract: Bill Jonson voted yes; Cretekos, no.

But Jonson said he isn't ready to make a decision on the cameras' fate. Neither is new incoming council member Hoyt Hamilton.

Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito said the city's three cameras have improved safety — it might just take some time for residents to see their value, she said. She wants more time to analyze data on crashes and violations before deciding.

No council member advocated ending the contract with RedFlex Traffic Systems Inc. before it expires in July 2015.

A big reason is the financial hit that would follow. The city would owe $27,000 to RedFlex if it cancelled a year early, said Rob Surette, assistant city attorney.

The early-cancellation penalty derives from the installation and operating costs for the cameras. Two of the cameras snap photos of traffic traveling in both directions on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard at Belcher Road. Another camera monitors eastbound traffic at S Fort Harrison Avenue and Chestnut Street.

The cameras began filming violators on July 31, 2012, about a year after the council approved a three-year contract with RedFlex.

RedFlex is currently mired in a lawsuit with a former executive who alleges that the company bribed municipal officers in Florida and a dozen other states. RedFlex and Clearwater officials have said the Arizona company, which also has contracts with Kissimmee and Jacksonville, didn't try to bribe anyone here during the bidding process.

To make certain, in February the city asked RedFlex to provide an audited report of expenses dating back to 2011. Nothing has arrived yet, city auditor Robin Gomez said last week.

St. Petersburg decided earlier this month to end that city's red-light camera program by September at the latest, earlier if it proves to be profitable. And state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a bill to repeal the state law allowing the cameras.

But in north Pinellas County, Clearwater isn't the only city planning to stay the course for now. Oldsmar, the other North Pinellas municipality with a red-light camera program, isn't considering any changes to its four cameras, said Debb Pauley, a city spokeswoman.

Clearwater netted almost $400,000 from tickets in the first year of the program, ending in August 2013. From October 2013 through February this year, the city made another $77,393.

Some have speculated that Hamilton, who served on the Clearwater City Council from 2001 to 2006 and was elected again last week, could be the swing vote on any effort to end red-light cameras in Clearwater. That's fine by him, Hamilton said. One of the employees at his family-owned Palm Pavilion on Clearwater Beach was rear-ended at the Gulf-to-Bay and Belcher intersection — an accident Hamilton said was because of a red-light camera. But he said he wants more time to look at the data.

In September, police reported that crashes due to red-light violations had decreased significantly at the Fort Harrison-Chestnut intersection while rising slightly at the Gulf-to-Bay/Belcher intersection since the cameras were installed.

Rear-end collisions, a frequent rallying cry for red-light opponents, were up at the Fort Harrison light but down at the Gulf-to-Bay intersection.

"If it's strictly for making money, I can't support it," Hamilton said. "You always have to look out for public safety."

Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. Follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.

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