Tampa council reverses vote; city to keep red light cameras into 2016

TAMPA — The City Council Thursday gave new life to Tampa’s red light cameras, voting 6-1 to continue the program for two years.

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The extension reversed a 4-3 council vote two weeks ago against renewing the city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions of Tempe, Ariz.

Tampa has 51 cameras focused on 21 different intersections, and police say their use has raised driver awareness, reducing crashes and red light violations.

The council didn’t dispute those benefits before taking their first vote on March 20. But Charlie Miranda, Yvonne Yolie Capin, Mary Mulhern and Frank Reddick voted no after saying part of the revenues should be spent on traffic safety improvements near those intersections.

This week, Mayor Bob Buckhorn agreed to do just that. One-fourth of camera revenue, which netted the city $1.6 million last year, will go toward such projects.

“We have spent a great deal of time talking to council members, trying to find a compromise,” Buckhorn said afterward. “It is our belief and has been from day one that these red light cameras are changing behavior, and our families are safer as a result. … These cameras work.”

Council member Lisa Montelione, who previously voted for the cameras with none of the money going toward traffic safety projects, on Thursday changed her vote to oppose the renewal. The reason, she said, was that the council’s agreement with the mayor steers the use of the revenues to camera-monitored intersections, not necessarily to projects where they could do the most good.

The mayor’s staff has said the city already spends plenty on transportation safety. This year’s budget includes $8 million for such projects. The previous three years saw an a total of $28.1 million in similar spending.

Virtually all of that money, however, has come from gasoline taxes, impact fees and the Florida Department of Transportation. Council members said they wanted at least some red light camera revenue, which now goes into the city’s general fund, to be earmarked for safety projects.

Characterizing the camera revenue as “extraordinary” income, Capin said it’s important to show the public that the camera program serves a safety purpose.

It does, say police, who reject about 25 percent of potential violations. In the 2½ years that the camera program has been in place, the city has more than doubled the number of cameras in use, but the number of citations issued and the amount of fines collected generally have declined.

Once a police officer has verified a violation, the program sends tickets to the owners of the vehicles photographed running a light. The city gets $75 of the $158 fine, with $83 going to the state. The city pays American Traffic Solutions to run the program out of its share of the fines. If revenues fail to cover operating costs, city officials say ATS would cover the shortfall.

On March 6, the St. Petersburg City Council voted 6-2 to kill its red light camera program by Sept. 30. There, crashes rose 10 percent during the program’s first year at 10 camera-monitored intersections.

By contrast, Tampa police said crashes dropped nearly 11 percent at the first 14 intersections to get the cameras during the first year of the program. The second year, the same intersections saw a further 33 percent reduction in crashes. Meanwhile, police said collisions at 19 crash-prone intersections that don’t have cameras rose by nearly 20 percent.

Red light camera opponent Matt Florrell of St. Petersburg disputed those statistics.

Florell, who reviewed nearly 30 studies on the cameras before St. Petersburg launched its system in 2010, contended that Tampa’s statistics leave out many rear-end crashes and that the city’s contract is only cost-neutral when it comes to ATS’s costs, not what city must pay officers to review the images and its clerical staff.

Florell predicted that as a result of adding four-tenths of a second to yellow lights — something the state is requiring to give aging drivers more time to respond to caution lights — the city will not make any money from red light cameras. He urged the council to let the contract lapse, then negotiate a lower per-camera rate with ATS.

“Why leave hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table when you don’t have to?” he asked.

Incentives offered

Speaking of money on the table, in two unrelated votes the council approved more than $100,000 in cash incentives to two companies considering corporate expansions in Tampa.

Both companies’ names are being kept secret under a business recruitment exemption to Florida’s public records law, but outlines of the deals provided to the council say:

• The city will provide up to $70,200 to a health plan provider that is headquartered outside the state but is looking to expand five locations either inside Florida or five other locations in Missouri. At stake are 130 jobs with an average wage of $51,500. The company expects to spend $825,000 in facilities to house the new employees, to make a decision by May 1 and to create the jobs by Dec. 31. The state will contribute another $312,000.

• The city will provide $30,000, with another $30,000 coming from Hillsborough County and $240,000 from the state, for the second project, a shared services center for a law firm with global operations. The firm expects the expansion to create 100 new jobs by 2017, with an average annual salary of at least $48,813. The preferred site is in the city and would bring an estimated $1 million in capital improvements. Florida is competing with North Carolina for the expansion.

Miranda re-elected council chairman

At the start of their meeting, council members re-elected Miranda as chairman, Harry Cohen as vice chairman and Frank Reddick as the chairman of the council when it sits as the Community Redevelopment Agency. On Mulhern’s motion, it elected Capin to replace Mike Suarez as vice chairman of the CRA.

During the council’s annual organizational discussion, Mulhern also nominated Cohen as chairman and Capin as vice chairman, but both declined.

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