In surprise, Tampa City Council moves — for now — to kill red-light cameras

Published March 21, 2014

TAMPA — In a stunning U-turn, the City Council voted Thursday against renewing the contract for Tampa's 2-year-old red-light camera program.

But that vote can be reversed.

Outside the meeting, all four council members who voted against the cameras told the Tampa Bay Times they would reconsider if Mayor Bob Buckhorn dedicated some camera revenues to traffic and pedestrian safety.

"It would change," Chairman Charlie Miranda said. "No doubt in my mind."

Hours later, Buckhorn said he would seek common ground but didn't promise any changes.

"I will work with Tampa City Council over the next week to reach an agreement," Buckhorn said in an email statement. He added he would "do what I can to make them feel more comfortable with the way red-light camera revenue is being utilized to ensure driver, cyclist and pedestrian safety within the city of Tampa."

The 4-3 vote came after Miranda and council members Yvonne Yolie Capin, Frank Reddick and Mary Mulhern objected to Buckhorn's policy of putting the revenue — nearly $1.64 million last year — into the general fund. That pays for police, fire, parks and recreation, public works, economic development and central government operations.

Several said a portion of the revenue, perhaps 25 percent, ought to go toward improving Tampa's roads and intersections.

"We have areas and schools where children are walking where there are no sidewalks," said Capin, who also said in 2011 she was voting against the program because none of the money was to be earmarked for safety.

Capin said she had no problems with the cameras themselves — if anything, she said the fines should be higher — but said the failure of Buckhorn's administration to address the council's questions about spending left her no recourse but to vote no.

Mulhern, who voted for the cameras two years ago, switched sides over using some camera revenue for traffic safety.

"It only makes sense to do that, and I can't understand why we can't do that," Mulhern said. "We owe it to our citizens to try to make our streets even safer."

The new contract would have begun April 7 and kept the program going to April 2016. After Thursday's vote, police Chief Jane Castor said she wasn't sure what would happen next.

"Frankly, it doesn't make sense to me," Castor said. "Every single council member said … the program works. It's reduced accidents. It's improved driver behavior. It's reduced injuries. And they voted the contract down."

Under the council's rules, any of the four council members in the majority can ask to reconsider their vote at the next regular meeting.

The administration also can ask for the issue to be reconsidered. If the mayor agreed to put some camera money toward safety, the renewal likely would pass, Miranda said, probably unanimously.

"That's all I've been asking for," Reddick said. "I'd vote to renew if they would not continue to ignore our requests."

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That point — whether the council had asked for a report on camera revenue spending — was the source of some jousting before the vote.

Council members said they had raised the issue in the past, implying their concern should have been no surprise. City Attorney Julia Mandell said she knew that the "conversation has been out there" but had not found evidence that the council ever requested a report.

"Give me a break," Miranda broke in, saying "common sense" should have told Buckhorn's staff to be ready for the topic.

In any case, Castor said afterward, "the city puts a great deal of tax dollars and funding into infrastructure and into traffic safety."

Under the red-light camera program, Tampa has 51 cameras deployed at 21 intersections. Tickets go to the owner of the vehicle that ran the light. The city gets $75 of the $158 fine, with $83 going to the state. The city pays American Traffic Solutions of Tempe, Ariz., to run the program out of its share of the fines.

In the two years the program has been in place, the number of citations issued and fines collected have fallen even while the city and ATS have more than doubled the original number of cameras. Still, if revenues failed to cover operating costs, city officials say ATS would absorb the shortfall.

"Our contract is cost-neutral," Castor said. "That means it will never cost the city of Tampa to operate these cameras."

The council's decision came two weeks after the St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-2 to kill its red-light camera program by Sept. 30. In St. Petersburg, the number of crashes rose 10 percent during the program's first year at the 10 intersections with the cameras.

That's not Tampa's experience, police say.

In the first year, crashes dropped almost 11 percent at the first 14 intersections to get the cameras, according to police. The second year, crashes at those intersections dropped another 33 percent.

Castor noted that police track crashes at the 40 most accident-prone intersections in the city, 21 of them covered by red-light cameras.

"Out of the 19 that aren't covered, accidents have increased during that period by almost 20 percent," she said.