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Brakes Put On Red Light Cameras

By Dan McKay and Trip Jennings
Journal Staff Writers
    Albuquerque's red light camera program screeched to a halt Thursday.
    Mayor Martin Chávez suspended the program just hours after the Legislature passed a bill to take some of the program's revenue.
    The mayor said the state legislation would leave Albuquerque without enough money to operate the program unless a taxpayer subsidy were provided.
    "I always thought this technology made us safer," Chávez said.
    Earlier in the day, Gov. Bill Richardson said he was leaning toward signing the bill. The state would use the money to help pay for courthouse projects, among other things.
    "Albuquerque has not paid a penny toward the Metro Court," said Rep. Henry "Kiki" Saavedra, D-Albuquerque. "This is a good bill."
    Chávez took swift action, even though the state bill wouldn't go into effect until July 1. He said people who supported the program should call their elected officials.
    Some city councilors suggested that Chávez moved too fast.
    "Why shut it down now if we can continue to fund it through July? The decision makes no sense to me," Councilor Michael Cadigan said.
    Councilor Don Harris said the program "should be suspended when it becomes a burden to the city, and not before."
    Chávez said he might resuscitate the program but needed to scrutinize the finances first.
    The city has cameras at 20 intersections and uses camera-equipped vans. The cameras photograph vehicles that run red lights or exceed the speed limit.
    Citations are mailed to the owners of the vehicles.
    The House voted 53-10 Thursday to divert some of the camera revenues to the state.
    "I'm for that one," Richardson said during a post-session news conference.
    The House vote came in the waning hours of the 2008 legislative session, which ended at noon Thursday, and followed the Senate's 35-1 passage of the legislation Wednesday.
    The bill calls for a portion of each red light camera fine to be diverted into a state fund to help pay for the Metro Courthouse and to pay for DWI drug courts.
    It is unclear how much the state would take of each fine, but enough would be left over for the city to keep paying Redflex, a private company, to maintain the program, said Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque. Payne was the author of a successful amendment to the bill that would keep Albuquerque from losing all money from the program.
    But Chávez said the amendment wasn't enough. The city would still face an unfunded $1.3 million annual tab to run administrative hearings in which people can contest the citations.
    Chávez said the city would examine whether it makes sense to cut library hours or trim other services to pay for the camera program.
    In a 5 p.m. news conference, he was clearly piqued about the state action. He said more police officers would now have to patrol school zones because camera vans won't be out.
    City officials said it could, therefore, take longer for police to respond to fender-benders elsewhere.
    Chávez repeatedly referred to it as the governor's legislation.
    This is not the first time state lawmakers have tried to divert funds raised by Albuquerque's red light camera program.
    Last year, lawmakers attempted to do something similar because they said Albuquerque wasn't paying its fair share of statewide court construction costs.
    Most lawmakers who rose to speak on the House floor Thursday supported the bill.
    A few, however, expressed concern that the bill could kill the program.
    "This program has really addressed speeding and running red lights," said Rep. Jane Powdrell-Culbert, R-Corrales.
    The bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, originally called for diverting all the revenue generated by red light camera program to the state.
    Payne successfully amended the bill to carve out a portion of each fine to go toward maintaining the program.
    The bill also calls for the state auditor to conduct an annual audit of the program.
    Police said no citations would be processed after 5 p.m. Thursday. The cameras may keep snapping, but the violations won't be processed.
    People who received citations before 5 p.m. will still face the usual penalties, with fines starting around $70.