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With Cameras, Red Means Green

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    The city's traffic camera enforcement program has been a moneymaker.
    According to a recent city audit, the program has turned a profit of $5.8 million the past two years it has been issuing citations, doubling expectations.
    And it could make even more money. According to the audit, 40 percent of those cited hadn't paid their tickets as of June 30.
    Mayor Martin Chávez cautions, however, against using the word "profit" to describe the $5.8 million. He called it "excess" money.
    "This program was never designed to make money," Chávez said. "The program was designed to fund itself."
    Chávez said he intends to talk to the City Council about the possibility of lowering fines again.
    In May, the City Council passed legislation lowering fines for a second offense in a two-year period to $200, $50 less than the original fine.
    For third offenses, the fines were lowered to $300 from $500.
    Fines for first offenses stayed at $100.
    According to the audit, all of the revenue and expenses for the program were withdrawn and deposited into the city's general fund.
    The city generated $10.6 million in fines.
    That money was used for the following:
   
  • $2.8 million was spent on a Phoenix-based company that administers the equipment and reports possible citations to the city.
       
  • $761,350 for other general expenses accrued by the Albuquerque Police Department.
       
  • $731,958 to fund a hearing office that deals with motorists' appeals.
       
  • $465,888 for the salaries of APD personnel to run the program.
        That left more than $5.8 million.
        "(The excess money) is certainly more than what we projected," city Chief Financial Officer Gail Reese said. "Even to me it sounds like a lot of money, but in the scheme of things, it is not much, relatively speaking" when compared with the city's nearly $1 billion budget.
        Chávez said he wants the money to sit in the general fund until he and the council discuss lowering the fines. But he said he doesn't want fines lowered to the point that they don't "discourage motorists from changing their driving behavior," he said.
        City officials have said the program must collect at least $63 per citation for the program to pay for itself.
        Chávez said he and Reese have cautioned against using the money to pay for any long- term programs. Reese expects that money generated from the program will decrease as motorists commit fewer violations.
        Another $5.6 million could soon be collected from those who have not paid. City Attorney Bob White said Wednesday that the city is in negotiations with a collection agency.
        "I think people's attitude is that they can get away with it or if they ignore it, it will go away," White said.
        Once the contract is signed with the collection agency, "we will be going after them aggressively and seek to collect the money that has not been paid."
        The audit was conducted by the city's Office of Internal Audit and Investigations at the request of the City Council. It studied all activity from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2007.
        The red-light program began in October 2004, issuing warnings to motorists who ran red lights at two intersections.
        Fines started being issued in May 2005. The program eventually expanded to include cameras at 20 intersections, some of which monitor speed, and three camera-equipped vans that monitor speed.
        The audit also found that:
       
  • Out of 142,645 citations, 1.7 percent were appealed and dismissed.
       
  • There were 18,547 more speeding tickets issued than red-light citations.
       
  • Accidents went down at San Mateo and Montgomery and Eubank and Montgomery, the intersections that have had the cameras the longest.
        San Mateo and Montgomery had an average of 2.1 fewer crashes a month, and Eubank and Montgomery had an average of 0.88 fewer crashes.
        Those two intersections were the only ones studied in the audit.
        The results from the audit come several months after the Public Regulatory Commission published data from accidents statistics supplied by APD.
        According to that data, the intersection at Juan Tabo and Lomas had a 22 percent increase in collisions from 2005 to 2006.
        At Paseo del Norte and Coors, crashes were up 11 percent; at Eubank and Montgomery, 8 percent.
        But crashes at San Mateo and Montgomery were down 21 percent.
        The four intersections were the first to have cameras installed.
        The data collected from the PRC covered one year, and the data collected in the audit covered two years.