State Politics

Red-light cameras working in Bradenton, so why not Manatee County?

BRADENTON -- Manatee County halted Tuesday its talks with a company it had hired for its red-light camera system, and ordered three cameras already installed to be immediately removed.

The county’s cameras have never been turned on, due to difficulties that officials complained had made the program financially unfeasible.

But since 2009, the city of Bradenton has been operating a similar system, which snaps videos of violators as they speed through red lights.

But why the county-city difference?

Bradenton has a contract with the same company that the county just severed talks with -- ACS State & Local Solutions Inc., of Fairfax, Va.

Bradenton’s system was up and running before lawmakers changed the playing field with a new law passed last year governing the use of red-light cameras and pre-empting the city’s arrangement with its vendor.

The county system had not yet gone into operation when state legislators changed the law.

Once the new law went into effect, Bradenton officials were able to re-negotiate their contract with the company, which installed and helps to operate seven high-speed cameras at intersections across the city.

County officials were unable to re-negotiate terms of their contract with the company, officials said.

Tuesday, county commissioners voted to halt talks after more than a year of fruitless effort.

Among the troubles the county cited that delayed a resolution were revisions the company attempted without stating any explanation or justification, according to a letter signed by County Attorney Tedd Williams.

The agreement called for the county to pay the company $36.50 per paid citation, two other minor fees, and 30 percent of the revenue collected on delinquent citations, Williams wrote.

However, when the Florida Legislature changed the fee schedule, what the county envisioned as a $150 fine for a first offense went up to $158 -- $83 of which the county was required to send to the state.

“It was a whole lot more lucrative two or three years ago, pretty much the fine was all the municipalities’ money,” said Carl Callahan, Bradenton city clerk and treasurer.

“The state wanted to get a piece of that, that’s what the Legislature did,” he added, emphasizing Bradenton didn’t set up its red-light cameras for monetary gain, anyway.

“It’s not a big money raiser, that’s not the intent,” Callahan said. “It’s out there for enforcement purposes -- we don’t want you running red lights. It’s a safety issue.”

Bradenton was able to revise its contract with the company after the state law went into effect, according to Bill Lisch, city attorney.

As part of those negotiations, the city made changes that helped it financially: “Our contract is revenue-neutral,” explained Lisch. “It says the city can’t lose money.”

If the system doesn’t earn much in revenue, “too bad for the company,” Lisch said.

Rather than the city paying the company based upon the number of tickets issued and collected, it pays a flat fee per camera, regardless of how many tickets are issued, said Lisch.

“The company furnishes the cameras, we don’t pay for them,” he explained.

As a department of the city, the Bradenton Police Department doesn’t charge extra to provide an official review of videos taken by the cameras, Lisch said.

The county’s law enforcement arm, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, wants compensation if its officers are to review videos.

“The scope of work as well as the amount of payment demanded by the sheriff changed substantially in the negotiation process,” wrote Williams. “At the sheriff’s insistence, if the program were to proceed, the county would have to fund one full-time officer ... in addition to all other costs and expenses incurred by the sheriff.”

Steube said Wednesday he wanted a deputy reviewing videos to be paid hour-for-hour of work.

“If they had gotten three cameras up and running, and it took 15 hours of a 40-hour workweek, we’d be paid for those hours,” Steube explained.

Eventually, as the number of cameras increased, a new officer would have to be hired to handle the workload, he added.

However, both Steube and his Bradenton counterpart, Police Chief Michael Radzilowski, expressed confidence that the red-light cameras do prevent crashes and enhance public safety.

“We’re not getting rich on the red-light camera system,” Radzilowski said. “It’s a way to make people more aware: ‘I need to stop at red lights.’

“Most serious crashes we have are probably people running red lights. It’s dangerous. You’re very vulnerable.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.

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