Votes on alcohol, cameras show New Port Richey council values income over safety

Published Jan. 21, 2012

It is disingenuous for a municipal government to tout a goal of improving highway safety while nearly simultaneously easing restrictions on public consumption of alcohol. But, those are the contradictory positions in New Port Richey where this week the City Council agreed to expand a red-light camera enforcement at city intersections under the guise of "traffic safety.'' The decision came shortly after Council voted 4-1 to amend its open-container rules allowing people to wander downtown special events with alcoholic beverages purchased at local taverns.

Collectively, the votes display a faded memory toward past alcohol-related troubles (A 35-year sentence on two counts of DUI manslaughter for a Holiday man after the 2006 Chasco Fiesta and the shooting death two years later of a man outside a downtown bar on the first weekend of Chasco) and worse, an unabashed hypocrisy in which cash considerations top other concerns.

First, a council majority agreed, on first reading, to allow bar patrons to leave the premises with alcoholic drinks in hand during the frequent special events downtown. The approval came over the objections from the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce which lamented the potential loss of a $5,000 beer company sponsorship if the outdoor beer and wine sales at the nonprofit agency's fundraisers face competition from the for-profit taverns.

The bar owners, meanwhile, lobbied successfully that they are at a competitive disadvantage during the special events because their customers must consume drinks before departing. Those patronizing the nonprofit agencies' beer tents, however, can head to Sims Park and other public locations with drink in hand.

We are not unsympathetic toward small business owners trying to navigate a difficult economy. But, this move to allow greater access to alcohol during the downtown events contradicts the initial reasoning for introducing beer and wine sales in the first place.

The original intent was to let charities sell alcoholic beverages as a way to boost fundraising, wean them from government assistance and also to make the special events more attractive to potential sponsors and patrons. That logic is now overshadowed by the financial interests of the downtown bars. It also raises the possibility that the downtown events on which they hope to profit more greatly just might not be as successful in the future if the corporate sponsorship dollars disappear.

Disappearing dollars also guided the expansion of an exiting red light camera program to two new intersections on U.S. 19, the main north-south route outside downtown. The camera vendor, American Traffic Solutions (ATS), told council cameras at five existing intersections produced nearly 9,700 citations in their first six months of operations with 80 percent of the violations issued to vehicles registered to out-of-towners. City police reported the cameras produced an average net monthly income to the city of $54,000, well below the budget projections of nearly $89,000 a month.

That is the clear motivation for adding additional cameras — the cash cow isn't producing as expected. Had council been truly inspired by traffic safety, it would have required its police department to document the number of crashes at the photographed intersections compared to a similar six-month time frame before the cameras were installed.

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Such information would provide tangible evidence of whether the cameras do, in fact, promote safer driving habits or just a safer revenue flow from non-city residents. Council should demand such an accounting, particularly since its stated focus is better public safety.