RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Put an insurance agent and a former police officer together for a debate on Rio Rancho’s red light camera and speed van program, and what do you get?
Rio Rancho Tea Party’s August monthly meeting featured Chuck Wilkins, District 1 councilor, ex-Marine and Farmers agent, who has publicly supported the program, versus Shelby Smith, ex-Navy SEAL and police officer, who thinks the city introduced them to make money.
The debate was held on Tuesday at the Church of Christ on 22nd Street. Organization President Renee Wilkins, the councilor’s wife, opened the discussion saying it was intended to provide “real information” to the public so they could make decisions based on “facts.”
Questions were submitted via email by members of the public.
Moderator Mark Scott, the District 4 councilor, said the councilors’ answers did not represent the city, city staff or the governing body. He began by asking if they thought the city introduced the red light cameras and speed vans to increase revenue.
The city received $338,859 in fiscal year 2013 as its share of the $100 fines paid by violators.
“I think money was a big factor but it was about public safety, too,” Wilkins said. He referred to insurance industry studies that showed cameras reduced the red-light running crashes.
“I agree with the catalyst being money,” Smith said. He thought the camera ticketing system took away the human factor in situations where an officer might decide issuing a warning was sufficient.
Later, he said he thought the cameras were unconstitutional, adding, “In this country, you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
The speed and red-light monitoring equipment has been operating for more than three years in Rio Rancho, first with van-mounted speed monitoring units, then red-light cameras that went active at the Southern and Northern intersections with Unser in March 2011.
A police study released this spring showed crashes dropped 3.6 percent, from 111 to 107 at Unser/Southern between 2008 and 2010 compared to the period from 2011 to 2013. At Unser/Northern, there was a 12 percent reduction in crashes, from 58 to 51, over the same time periods.
Asked if they were aware of a controversy surrounding Redflex Systems, the Arizona-based company Rio Rancho hired to supply and operate the equipment, each said they were.
The Chicago Tribune reported in May that a former city transportation official is accused in a $2 million bribery scheme that directed a contract to Redflex.
Wilkins and Smith were not concerned about the scandal as related to Rio Rancho.
Rio Rancho is currently the only city in New Mexico contracting with Redflex. Albuquerque councilors voted to end that city’s program in 2011 after voters rejected it. Las Cruces officials decided in February not to renew its Redflex contract. Santa Fe let its contract for speed vans expire at the end of 2013.
Another question asked what they thought the city should do to make up for the revenue lost if Rio Rancho does away with the program. The Redflex contract is up for renewal in December.
Wilkins warned that the city would have to cut services or raise taxes.
Smith said the governing body should find other ways to solve financial problems instead of looking to “people’s pocketbooks.”
“We’re trying to get voluntary compliance from citizens,” Smith said. “How far do you push that goal to get revenue?”
Several of the roughly 35 people who attended the debate said they thought it was informative but it didn’t change the viewpoints of those who said they already didn’t like the cameras and vans.
“Deep down, I hate those little bastards,” Dorothy Allen said.