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CITY MAKES RIGHT CALL ON RED-LIGHT REVENUE

The Brooksville City Council is correctly putting the brakes on a plan to use new-found revenue from red-light cameras to finance an expanded Police Department.

Instead, the City Council, in a 4-1 vote, correctly pushed the dollars toward more pressing needs. The action came during its first public hearing on the upcoming budget. The final hearing on the budget is Sept. 23.

While police Chief George Turner envisioned a new three-officer traffic enforcement unit, the council's vision is more in focus with a city seeking to renovate its antiquated infrastructure to spur economic development.

The windfall, projected at $817,500, comes from the city's 5-month-old red-light camera program in which a private camera operator, American Traffic Solutions, monitors intersections and issues civil citations for traffic infractions. A month ago, the city said 1,524 citations had been issued, producing nearly $121,000, which put the program on a pace to gross more than $1 million in the first year of operation.

It's an important revenue stream for the city, which is expecting property tax collections in its $7.4 million general fund to drop $360,000 in the coming year, plus recession-driven declines in sales tax receipts and state revenue sharing dollars.

Instead of following the chief's recommendation to expand his 23-officer department to add even more traffic enforcement, the council majority wisely plugged most of the new money into reserves and capital spending.

Though no specific priority list has emerged, the money could mean help for a deteriorating road, repaired sidewalks or, as council member Lara Bradburn put it, greater attention to putting "the infrastructure in place in areas we can use to lure in new businesses and to keep the businesses we have strong." Doing that means putting more resources underground to address aging utility lines before prettying up the surface with landscaping and other aesthetics.

Only council member David Pugh dissented from that logic, saying the Police Department was entitled to the red-light money or else the city should lower its property tax rate, which is scheduled to remain status quo under the proposed budget. Trying to provide property tax relief with an unanticipated windfall is understandable, except it coincides with what the city manager characterized as the largest revenue shortfall in the city's history. Additionally, the 2011 budget is not expected to be any easier, considering property values have continued to decline throughout the year.

Pugh's advocacy of Turner's plan also fails to account for growth in the city's Police Department because of a just-awarded three-year federal grant to hire a new officer. Public safety concerns are not being shortchanged.

Saving for a rainy day and, more important, investing in the city's bricks and mortar are more beneficial to Brooksville's long-term future.

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