Traffic Enforcement cameras: Where does the money go

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

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Editor’s Note: With public questions surrounding traffic enforcement cameras’ operational times and revenue from citations still being asked, we spoke with Director of Public Works Robert Lewis to clarify some confusion. This is part two of the two-part series. Part one can be read here

Suffolk’s automated enforcement cameras remain a hot topic within the community, with much concern being shared regarding where taxpayer funds from traffic violations are going. In a Monday, Jan. 29 interview, Director of Public Works Robert Lewis revisited the topic to better understand the cameras while addressing concerns over civil penalty funds. 

Officer verification and citation funding

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Despite being automated, the cameras have a human element to confirm the accuracy of the ticket violations, with officers verifying the citation details before accepting or rejecting it. Commenting on the accuracy of this human component, Media and Communications Director Jennifer Moore says that the officers “who review the information provided confirm its accuracy to the best of their abilities.”

The biggest comments have been regarding funding from civil penalties. During a staff report on the cameras at Suffolk City Council’s Jan. 17 meeting, it was detailed that Suffolk received accumulated citation funds in $5,277,637 with vendor operational costs totaling $2,280,928. Lewis detailed that the vendor Altumint, which operates the automated camera systems, receives a “flat rate” monthly fee for operating on the city’s behalf.

“That doesn’t matter whether they’re getting any violations or they’re getting no violations. So [in] a month, maybe they only get 10 violations, they get paid their flat rate. If there’s a month they get 10,000 violations, they get paid the same flat rate,” Lewis said. 

These fees were detailed during the City Council’s Aug. 2, 2023 meeting. During the presentation on the traffic cameras, fees to the vendor were listed. Both red light enforcement and work/school zone cameras see a $3,199 fee per month. School bus stop-arm cameras see a $499 per bus fee with $49 included per citation. An additional fee was noted regarding the 250 anticipated citations per system standard. When each system exceeds 250 citations, the vendor receives an additional $12 fee for each citation added to compensate for the citation mailing process. Lewis says this is a “cost neutral contract,” where the city enters into the contract with the vendor and at the end of each month, the vendor summarizes how much money the city owes them for operating the system. 

“At the end of that month, also the violations are coming in, so the money flowing back in positive flow on the violations that’s getting paid,” Lewis said.

On the accumulated funding from traffic citations, Lewis emphasized that the funds will be used towards safety projects. Noting the recently approved school flasher upgrades and crosswalk between Kings Fork Middle and High School, Lewis said both projects are “proceeding forward.” Lewis also mentions blight abatement, neighborhood safety support, better streetlights, and more as proposed upgrades. On funding from the school bus arm cameras, Lewis detailed that according to state law, any revenue generated from school bus cameras goes back to the school system. Noting that they have 51 school buses with operating cameras, these cameras generated total revenue of $17,000 in returned citations issued. However, Lewis details that the expense to operate these school bus cameras was $135,000 and notes that the cameras did not “generate any positive revenue.”

“So what we’re doing thus far is we’re allowing the revenue from the rest of the system – the red light cameras, the speed cameras, and the work zone speed cameras and the school zones – the positive revenue coming from them to offset the costs of operating the school bus cameras because again, everyone feels safety of students on the bus is so important, we’re allowing the other parts of the system that are having positive revenue to offset the expenses of that, which is not generating a positive revenue stream,” Lewis detailed. “So, the short answer is no money has been transferred to the school system because thus far, no money has actually been realized that is a positive nature to transfer to them.”

Finally, Lewis addressed continued public comments about the safety camera project being used by the city to take the taxpayer’s money for their own use.

“From day one in this program, it has always been about highway safety… It’s not a tax. It’s a violation. But again, it’s voluntary. If you obey the law, drive safely, drive within the speed limit, stop at the traffic lights, you’ll never pay the city a dime in this,” Lewis said. “But if you’re someone who can’t obey the law, can’t moderate your behavior to stay within the limits of the highway laws of the Commonwealth, then you are going to be asked to contribute to this program to enhance safety for everybody.”

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