NEW PORT RICHEY — The number of tickets generated by the city's red light cameras has dropped dramatically, along with the number of crashes at some of those intersections.
That's the good news, city finance director Doug Haag told the City Council last week. The bad news, he said, is that the city faces an $800,000 shortfall this year in red light ticket revenue.
The city had expected the cameras, installed in July 2011, to generate $1.15 million this year. So far, the city has collected $162,189, and officials expect to finish the fiscal year with just $350,000 in ticket revenue — a 70 percent shortfall.
"That's the big elephant," Haag said.
That's also a huge blow to the financially strapped city, though officials said the cameras are having the desired effect if more people are driving carefully.
"For me, it's never about the money. If these cameras are the cause of lower crashes at these problem intersections, then that's always been the goal," said interim police Chief Kim Bogart.
American Traffic Solutions, the company that administers the cameras for the city, compiled a report in January showing that citations dropped in 2012 compared with the previous year at several intersections. Violations fell a whopping 83 percent at U.S. 19 and Marine Parkway southbound, for instance. Bogart also noted that the number of crashes there decreased from 52 in 2010 to 13 last year.
At U.S. 19 and Main Street, where the city has cameras pointing southbound and westbound, violations have dropped 34 percent. Crashes have decreased from 32 in 2010 to 18 last year.
The trend did not hold true at every intersection, however. U.S. 19 and Gulf Drive saw a 56 percent decrease in violations, but crashes slightly increased from 18 in 2010 to 21 in 2012.
No doubt, fewer citations are being issued. But city officials also say fewer citations are being paid right away. More people are contesting their tickets, and that has created a backlog of cases awaiting rulings by a judge.
Haag estimates that about half of the $800,000 shortfall in red light ticket revenue is from citations that are tied up in the courts.
City officials are working on a solution to the court backlog. A new state law taking effect July 1 will allow local governments to create an internal special magistrate system to hold hearings on the $158 tickets they issue. Assistant City Attorney Jim Lang said he'll bring a proposed ordinance for such a system to the council in the coming weeks.
A special magistrate might be able to hear cases on red light tickets more quickly, Lang said. But that won't help any of the currently backlogged cases, as any citations that are already in the court system cannot be transferred to a special magistrate.
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The city, which must review video of red light runners before issuing citations, had its own backlog of cases for a while. So the Police Department hired two part-time civilian employees to watch the footage, freeing up sworn officers to return to patrol, Bogart told the council.
The city of Port Richey, which operates four cameras on U.S. 19, has seen a financial dip as well. A quarterly financial report presented to the City Council in February showed a $48,151 shortfall for the first three months of the fiscal year, based on the city's projections.
Port Richey city manager Tom O'Neill said the discrepancy is small and not cause for alarm, adding that he believes the cameras have created a safer stretch of U.S. 19 in the city. He said Port Richey will also discuss establishing a special magistrate to handle citations.