Wednesday, March 7, 2007
Red-Light Cameras Gone In a Flash? Mayor Says Bill Passage Would End City Program
By T.J. Wilham and Trip Jennings
Copyright © 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writers
Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez said Tuesday that he'll pull the plug on the city's traffic camera enforcement program if legislators pass a law requiring the city to share some of its fees with the state.
Senate Bill 780, unanimously approved by the Senate last week, would require the city to give the state $74 for every citation issued by the traffic camera program.
"This bill is a program killer," Chávez said. "This is very unfortunate. The state's largest city comes up with an innovative program to improve public safety, and the legislators just see green."
Regular traffic citations are considered criminal violations, and must be witnessed by a police officer. The state gets up to $74 in fees for every traffic conviction in New Mexico.
But in Albuquerque, the city classified citations issued by the camera program as civil violations. All the income from the camera program which has topped $6 million since May 2005 is deposited into the city's general fund. The program's fines range from $100 to $500.
Last week, Sen. Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, said the rest of the state suffers when Albuquerque doesn't pay the state traffic violation fees, which finance everything from court construction to brain injury services.
City officials said that if they have to pay the state $74 per citation, it would cost Albuquerque taxpayers $5 million a year to maintain the program.
The only alternative, they said, would be to increase all fines by $74, which Chávez won't support.
"One hundred and seventy-four dollars for a red-light ticket (on the first offense) is way too much, and I think the people of Albuquerque would agree," Chávez said.
Supporters of SB 780, who include lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, were skeptical of the mayor's intention to shut down the program.
"If it's a safety issue, I fail to see the logic" of the mayor's statement, said Sen. William Payne, R-Albuquerque.
City officials have always said the money generated by the program would go to add more cameras. There are 15 intersections equipped with cameras targeting red-light runners, and some of the cameras also catch speeders. There are also three camera-equipped vans that target speeders.
Of a standard $100 fine, city officials said, $14 goes to the company that owns the equipment, $15.65 funds the hearing office, $18 processes the fines and $9.60 pays for officers to review the citations.
An additional $3.75 pays for startup costs, $36 pays for expansion, program education and projects like the meth team, $2 goes to repairs and maintenance, and 87 cents goes to personnel costs.
Some Albuquerque residents say they're getting automated phone messages from City Councilor Craig Loy urging them to call lawmakers in support of the camera program.
Albuquerque resident Richard Buckler said Tuesday that he got one of the messages.
The gist of the message was to prevent the Legislature from "watering down our red-light laws in Albuquerque," said Buckler, who opposes the way the red-light camera program has been set up.
"I know very few people who support it," Buckler said. "The penalties seem inordinately high."
Jennings said Tuesday he would push forward with his bill, which is waiting to be heard by a House committee.
"Why should the people in the whole rest of the state build Albuquerque's Metro Court and they don't pay anything back?" he said. "That's basic fairness, but then, I don't live in the Imperial City."
Meanwhile, a House committee voted 7-5 Tuesday to table a bill that would have forced the city to post yellow beacons at camera intersections, warning drivers that lights are about to turn red.
"It's dead, unless one of the Democrats who voted against it ... is willing to reconsider" the proposal, said Payne, its sponsor.