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There are smarter ways to spend red-light windfall than more police

A potential million-dollar windfall in a down economy isn't reason to go on a spending spree. But that is what's advocated by the city of Brooksville police chief, who proposes to add three traffic patrols to a 23-officer department with the revenue rolling in from recently installed red-light cameras.

That doesn't even account for a new position gained with a recently announced three-year federal grant to the department for a community-oriented police officer. The City Council formally accepted the grant Monday evening. It would be prudent to put a portion of the red-light dollars into a reserve account to ensure the capability of assuming the salary and benefit costs for the new officer after the grant expires.

Proper fiscal management also calls for replenishing the reserves that are being raided to help balance the budget this year without a property tax rate increase. Budget documents show the city's proposed $7.4 million general fund is balanced with nearly $700,000 from reserve accounts.

Police aren't being short-changed, incidentally. The biggest line item in the proposed budget is the nearly $1.8 million Police Department spending, a $113,000 increase over the current budget.

But, the city is dipping into its savings because it expects to collect $2.7 million from property taxes next year, a $360,000 decline attributed to falling property values. Likewise, state revenue sharing and sales tax proceeds are down. Still, the City Council decided to maintain a steady tax rate of just less than $6.07 per $1,000 of a property's assessed taxable value.

The real revenue generator is the city's new red-light cameras. Since April, Brooksville has issued 1,524 citations and collected nearly $121,000, minus about $18,000 paid to the private camera operator, American Traffic Solutions. If the citations and fine collections continue at their current pace, the city could see a $1 million annual windfall by the program's first anniversary.

Police Chief George Turner said the city should create a new three-person traffic enforcement team with a share of the proceeds. It's pitched as a program that pays for itself, but the council should refrain from endorsing this proposal.

Retaining a part-time officer to review red-light violations and a hearing officer to handle citation appeals are logical expenditures, but simply using ticket citation proceeds to hire officers whose duties will include writing even more traffic tickets is excessive.

The city has other pressing matters. The council should consider a more substantial investment in its multiyear capital project account fund, which has less than $132,000 in it. Essentially, it is savings for future capital expenses and it's the kind of long-term planning that cannot be ignored particularly because the 2011 budget year is not expected to be any brighter.

The city could decide patrol officers whose duties include substantially more than traffic enforcement might be a better use of the windfall. Or, just as appropriately, the red-light revenue could mean reducing the reliance on real estate taxes to fund the city's police force. That could free up general revenue for other spending or to reduce future property tax rates.

Brooksville is in an enviable position. It has new revenue for the coming year while other local governments are figuring out which services to cut, how many employees to lay off or how high to raise fees to balance their recession-ravaged budgets.

More traffic enforcement, on top of the red-light cash cow, shouldn't be high on the priority list.

There are smarter ways to spend red-light windfall than more police 08/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:27pm]
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