Saturday, November 17, 2007
Councilors: Red-Light Funds Misused
By Dan McKay and T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writers
Money generated by Albuquerque's red-light camera program has been used to balance the city's budget, two city councilors say.
"We all had been told (the money) was earmarked and held out to be used for something different," said City Councilor Brad Winter. The city administration has "been misleading on this program from the beginning."
An audit in September revealed the camera program had generated about $5.8 million beyond what was needed to run the program. At the time, Mayor Martin Chávez said it was "excess" money and that he would talk with councilors about what to do with it.
Chávez, who backed creation of the camera system, has said repeatedly the program wasn't intended to be a money maker.
The Albuquerque Police Department has stressed that revenues would be plowed back into the program or used in other nuisance-abatement enforcement.
But Winter and Councilor Sally Mayer said excess money from the program has been spent on basic government operations. For example, they say some of the excess from last fiscal year was transferred into this year's budget for spending.
Administration officials said Friday that they are simply operating under the budget approved by councilors.
Mayer pointed out that the budget originates with the administration. She said the council was led to believe that money from the camera program wouldn't be used as a revenue source for the general fund.
The camera program is part of the general operating budget, meaning its revenue and expenses are mixed with other city operations.
"It wouldn't be possible to tell how money from any particular program was spent," said Bruce Perlman, the city's chief administrative officer. "Dollars don't have a certain color when they come into the budget from the red-light program. That's kind of a naive and mistaken point."
The administration has now created a separate fund for the camera program at Chávez's direction.
About $5.1 million from the general operating budget can be sent to the new red-light fund, said Perlman and Anna Lamberson, the city's chief financial officer.
The full $5.8 million isn't available, they said, because an additional $700,000 in camera bills came in after the audit was completed.
Mayer said that she doesn't believe that city has $5.8 million to take out of the general fund without making cuts elsewhere.
Winter and Mayer, meanwhile, say that doesn't change the fact that camera-citation revenue has been used to help balance the budget.
"If the administration says we're going to set up a fund and put $5.8 million in it next week ... I suppose we'll know who's telling the truth when we see how the budget closes out at the end of the year," Mayer said.
Chávez has appointed a task force to review the camera program and consider scrapping it altogether because of concerns that it isn't reducing accidents.
Winter and Mayer said they reviewed the budget documents after the recent audit. The audit pointed out the money was in the general fund.
Mayer was considering whether that money ought to be given back to people who had paid citations. She supports the program but believes the fines should be lower.
Perlman said both Mayer and Winter's motivation is political. Both are Republicans. Chávez, a Democrat, is running for the U.S. Senate.
"The administration cannot spend a dime that's not been appropriated by the City Council," Perlman said.