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Red light cameras raising red flags in Bremerton

By Josh Farley, Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 17--BREMERTON -- Bremerton's six-year experiment with red light cameras is sputtering.

The cameras were hailed as a way to prevent collisions at the city's busiest intersections when they were introduced in 2008. But crash data don't provide solid proof they've done that.

Ticket revenue is falling every year, prompting concern the cameras might eventually cost the city more money than they generate.

The company that runs the program, Phoenix-based Redflex Traffic Systems, is fighting its own public relations battle following a bribery scandal that ensnared a former Redflex executive who signed the city's contract. City officials say they are monitoring developments.

Support at the top of the city for the program is mixed -- at best.

Mayor Patty Lent is frank in her position.

"I'm willing to pull the cameras when they become nonproductive for us," she said. "The program can't cost us more than we're bringing in."

The mayor said she's willing to review the red light camera program later this year as part of the city's 2015 budget process.

REVENUES DECLINING

Former Mayor Cary Bozeman said the red light camera program was implemented for three reasons: to reduce accidents at intersections, generate revenue and relieve police officers "to go do more important things." He believes in his time as mayor, it was successful.

"More and more in society, we are policing with technology," he said. "It's a part of life."

Like many photo enforcement programs around the country and the state, Bremerton's was lucrative from its onset. The city took in $842,580 in 2008. Over the past five years, motorists have paid $4.3 million in fines, with $2.6 million going to Redflex.

But the amount collected dwindled to $570,775 in 2013. The drop in citations issued between 2012 and 2013 was the biggest ever -- a decrease of about 2,500 tickets.

Factoring in the $432,000 the city pays each year to Redflex, the margins are thinning for the city.

The city's contract includes a clause that it won't be on the hook financially if the cameras fail to yield the amount it has agreed to pay Redflex. But the city has its own costs it has to recoup -- about $30,000 a year to pay for police officers to review the camera's citations and court staff to handle the tickets.

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This year, revenues to the city are projected at less than $100,000 when its own costs are factored in.

Revenue collection also is hampered by those who simply don't pay the infractions, considered by the city as tantamount to a parking ticket. The city collected about 73 percent of the fines levied in 2013. A new ticketing system will prevent drivers from renewing their car tabs if the vehicle has three unpaid red light tickets in a year, but absent of that, the city can't force someone to pay.

State law prohibits cameras from taking a picture of the driver. It's an open secret among those contesting the tickets that they simply have to claim they weren't driving to get out of the citation.

"If you say you weren't driving, those tickets get dumped," Bremerton Municipal Court Judge James Docter said.

Plus, the form mailed to cited motorists was recently amended to include a box they can check to claim the car was under the "care, custody or control" of another person at the time of the infraction -- another wrinkle that will probably lead to further decline in revenue collection.

ARE THEY WORKING?

Supporters of the program say the decrease in citations shows the cameras are actually working.

The number of red light camera citations issued in Bremerton has fallen every year but one, plunging from a high of 10,547 tickets in 2008 to 6,337 in 2013.

"To have a 50 percent drop from their high is a sign of a change in driver behavior," said Lt. Pete Fisher, the city's red light camera program manager.

But there might be more than a change in behavior at play.

In late 2012, the city revamped three intersections on Warren Avenue, including two with cameras.

The biggest change was transforming the southbound right-hand turn off Warren Avenue onto 16th Street from a full stop to a "yield" for motorists.

The camera watching southbound 16th Street at Warren has nabbed more violators than any other in the city by more than 3,000 tickets, picking off nearly 13,000 since its inception.

Judge Docter has noticed that many of the citations issued aren't from drivers running a red to head straight -- they're making a right-hand turn and fail to come to a complete stop.

Data show the camera at southbound Warren and 16th nabbed 3,332 violators in its first year -- the highest for any camera. But after the right turn became a yield, tickets there fell to 753 in 2013.

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Docter wonders if the right-hand turns were what proponents of the system had in mind when cameras came to Bremerton in 2008.

"Do I think the red light cameras work? Yes, I think people learn and they serve their purpose," Docter said. "But the more fundamental question is, 'What are you trying to stop?'"

That answer, from red light camera vendors and the city officials who supported their implantation, was collisions.

But that hasn't happened in Bremerton. An analysis of collisions at the intersections where the cameras keep watch don't show a pattern of decreasing collisions.

There were 58 collisions reported at the five intersections in 2006 and 44 in 2007. Crashes fell to 37 in 2008 and 34 in 2009.

But they've risen and fallen in no predictable pattern over the past four years.

Fisher calls that data inconclusive but argues the numbers don't show how many crashes were prevented by the cameras.

"Each time you reduce a red light runner, you're taking a possible collision out of play," he said.

Others say freeing up officers to pursue other crimes is a benefit that can't be discounted. Catching red light runners is a tall order for a cop, said Officer Robbie Davis.

"If you're behind them, you've got to run the red light to try and catch them," he said.

COMPANY CONTROVERSY

Complicating city officials' analysis is that Redflex -- an Australian company whose U.S. operations are based in Arizona -- has become embroiled in scandal.

In 2012, stories in the Chicago Tribune questioned the relationship between the companies and Chicago officials. In the end, Redflex's$100 million contract with the city -- its largest on the continent -- unraveled, the company dismissed a number of its employees and the federal government began an investigation into the alleged bribery, according to the Tribune.

Federal charges were officially leveled last week against a former Chicago city manager who reportedly was given lavish company-paid trips, the Tribune reported.

Aaron Rosenberg, the company's executive vice president and one of those fired, has filed a counterclaim suit against Redflex alleging he was a scapegoat to cover up for the company, which he claimed had been handing out bribes and gifts in "dozens of municipalities" in 13 other states.

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While Rosenberg's signature appears on Redflex's 2009 contract with Bremerton, it is unknown whether the city, or others in this state, could be part of his unfounded claim.

City records and interviews with staff handling the Redflex contract here indicate a cordial relationship. Redflex said its "very proud" of its seven-year partnership with the city. The company once asked Fisher to fly to Phoenix to testify in a lawsuit on its behalf in May 2010.

City emails show Fisher told company officials they would have to pay his way. He informed police department administration and the city's legal department of the request.

Lent said she was unaware of the trip.

The company lodged Fisher in the Ritz Carlton for two days in Phoenix, which was across the street from the law firm representing Redflex. Other police officials testified in the case, stemming from a lawsuit filed by competitor ATS. It alleged Redflex had improperly advertised itself by displaying a radar unapproved by the Federal Communications Commission in its marketing.

Fisher, who was never called to testify, was briefed to say that the issue wouldn't have affected Bremerton's decision to go with the company.

Lent said Bremerton officials are monitoring the federal investigation and that it could be a factor in the city's decision to continue the program.

"We're not putting our heads in the sand," she said.

FUTURE OF CAMERAS

Photo enforcement in America has enjoyed a meteoric rise since it was introduced in New York City in 1992. But the number of U.S. cities using red light photo enforcement in 2013 dropped for the first time in five years, from 540 to 503, according to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

But use of other systems, including school zone and school bus stopping arm cameras, continues to grow, according to Charles Territo of American Traffic Solutions, another camera vendor.

The reasons for the drop-off of red light camera systems vary. Sometimes it is community outcry. In Washington, Monroe pulled its Redflex cameras in 2013 following advisory votes in which strong majorities turned out against them.

Redmond pulled its Redflex cameras after a six-month trial because they didn't reduce collisions, according to Redmond Officer Julie Beard.

"They did catch a lot of violators," Beard said, but they didn't reduce crashes. "In fact, I think we had three more collisions."

Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan said he would remain neutral if the issue comes up for discussion this year.

"I'm not pro- or anti- photo enforcement," he said. "I view it as a policy decision by our elected officials."

Members of the City Council have differing views on the cameras.

If the system actually were to cost the city more money than it brings in, "that really opens up the debate for me," Councilman Eric Younger said.

Redflex said it would work with the city to address concerns if the contract came up for discussion. But a spokeswoman did not say whether the terms could be renegotiated.

"If a Redflex customer wishes to discontinue its agreement, we work with the customer to address its concerns consistent with the terms of the contract with the customer," Redflex spokesman Jody Ryan said.

Any changes "would have to be lucrative" for the city, Lent said.

Still, if the revenue falls further, the cameras might come out.

"We aren't going to pay for something that's not at least revenue neutral," Lent said.

Join the conversation on red light cameras

-- What do you think about the city's red light camera program? Discuss the pros and cons during a live chat with reporters Josh Farley, Steven Gardner and Andrew Binion at 11 a.m. Monday at kitsapsun.com.

-- To read more, see Josh Farley's Bremerton Beat blog here.

___

(c)2014 the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.)

Visit the KitsapSun (Bremerton, Wash.) at www.kitsapsun.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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