In surprise vote, Tampa City Council moves to kill red light camera program

TAMPA — In a surprise reversal, the Tampa City Council Thursday voted to not to renew the contract for Tampa’s two-year-old red light camera program.

The 4-3 vote came after council members Yvonne Yolie Capin, Frank Reddick, Charlie Miranda and Mary Mulhern said at least some of the camera revenue should be earmarked for transportation improvements, not simply be put into City Hall’s general spending.

“We have areas and schools where children are walking where there are no sidewalks,” said Capin, one of three council members who voted against the program two years ago because the money was not being used to make the city’s road network safer.

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While not challenging the efficacy of red light cameras — if anything, she said, the fines should be higher — Capin said the failure of Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s administration to address the council’s question of how the funds are spent left her little recourse but to vote against the program’s renewal.

Mulhern, who voted in favor of creating the program two years ago, changed her position on renewing a contract that would have kept the program going to April 2016. This time, she, too, said the city should set aside some of the red light camera revenue — $1.64 million last year — for intersection or transportation improvements.

“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 on April 7, and after the vote, Police Chief Jane Castor said she wasn’t sure what would happen now that the council did not support re-upping the contract.

“Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Castor said, noting that council members acknowledged that the cameras had reduced the number of crashes, injuries, property damage and tickets issued at the monitored intersections.

Despite Thursday’s vote, the demise of Tampa’s red light camera program is not a certainty.

That’s because any of the four council members in the majority can ask that the vote to renew the contract be reconsidered. Outside the meeting, Miranda said he would do so and vote for the contract if Buckhorn’s administration agreed to spend some of camera money on safety improvements. Under those circumstances, he predicted the renewal would pass, probably unanimously.

“It would change,” he said of the majority. “No doubt in my mind.”

In the council discussion leading up to the vote, the focus of supporters was on the safety benefits of the camera program.

“It has changed behavior,” Castor said.

“The overall success of this program as a public safety tool necessitates its being renewed,” said council member Harry Cohen, who voted to renew the program with Mike Suarez and Lisa Montelione. “I’m for this because I truly believe it has saved lives and I truly believe that if you don’t want to get a ticket, you should not run the red light.”

No one from the public spoke against the cameras. Three neighborhood activists took the microphone to support them.

“I urge you: Listen to your chief of police,” said Al Steenson, president of the Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association. “The system does work.”

Tampa has 51 cameras deployed at 21 intersections. Tickets go to the owner of the vehicle that ran the light. The fines are $158, of which $75 goes to the city and $83 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 that the program has been in place, the total number of citations issued and total amount of 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 run this program.”

The council’s decision comes 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 statistics. The second year, crash totals at those intersections dropped another 33 percent.

Castor noted that police track crashes at the 40 most accident-prone intersections in the city, about half of which are covered by red light cameras. Not only have crashes dropped at those monitored intersections, but in the last two years they have risen at intersections that don’t have the cameras, she said.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has filed a bill to ban the use of red light cameras statewide. The chairman of the Senate’s Transportation Committee, Brandes has said he believes the cameras, currently used in 74 cities and five counties in Florida, are about generating revenue, not promoting safety.

In an unrelated vote, the council was scheduled to consider paying $1 million for a former warehouse on E Hanna Avenue.

The 11-acre paved site is at 2515 E Hanna Ave., about two blocks east of N 22nd Street. The property, formerly used by Electric Machinery Enterprises, is owned by Hanna Properties Corp., whose president is Jaime Jurado of Tampa.

The city plans to use the property, which is above the flood plain, to store files and other materials that various departments now have stored in space the city leases elsewhere, said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s economic opportunity administrator. The city commissioned two appraisals, which put the property’s value at $1.3 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, Danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.