A treasure trove

A cash-strapped city that has been scrambling to recover thousands of dollars of lost revenue will probably get some relief through its newly installed speed cameras. A recession-hit economy has cost the City with a loss in state funds and a reduction of property taxes due to declining house prices. The City has been using means such as a $5 hike in parking permit fees to recover from such loss of revenues.

The City first installed speed cameras in 3 locations – Metzerott Road, Paint Branch Parkway and Rhode Island Avenue. A new camera was recently installed on Route 1. Per state regulations, all these cameras must be installed within half a mile from an educational institution, such as a local school or the University of Maryland.

In last May, the City approved to award the speed camera contract to a Lanham-based company called Optotraffic. In March, the city conducted a public hearing on the subject.

Cameras went into operation on November 15. As of close of business on December 7, a total of 8663 citations were issued, which roughly turns out to be an average of 377 per day. Out of the $40 charged per ticket, the City receives $24 and Optotraffic receives $16; this means that the City is getting $9048 per day. If the trend continues, the yearly revenue from the cameras will be around $3,302,520. For this fiscal year which ends in June 2011, the projected revenue will however be around $2 million.

Though the City plans to install more cameras within its boundary, there is a major caveat on how much the City can keep from these revenue figures. The City can only take an amount equal to 10% of City’s total operating budget, which equals $12.5 million. This means the City can keep around $1.25 million; the rest must be returned to the State.

Do I like the aspect of the law where the state should get the excess money? (I’ve) mixed feelings, but I doubt they will be getting much” – said District 4 council member Marcus Afzali commenting on the part of revenues the State will be getting.

Some residents also think the State should not be given a free ride to enjoy 90% of the revenue. “My argument is that we should not be forced to pay money to the State from this program, when they have cut our share of the Highway User Revenue fund by 90%.  In my opinion, we should simply stop issuing tickets, which will save the City the cost of reviewing and validating those tickets.  In essence, after we hit the 10% number, our efforts are going to the State government, not the City, but the City would still incur all the associated costs related to the operation of the cameras.  Hardly fair, in my opinion,” said north College Park resident Mathew Byrd.

But the council members don’t agree on such a strategy. “We’d be in violation of state law if we hold this money back.  I certainly don’t think that’s a wise idea,” said District 1 council member Patrick Wojahn.

District 2 council member Bob Catlin also echoed Wojahn’s concern:  “Perhaps people should try to function in the real world rather than an imaginary world” .

Other residents support the cameras, but are skeptical about the revenues because of “hidden” costs. “Who paid for the equipment? Who pays to maintain the equipment? Who installed it?  That all costs $$ and last time I checked there is no such thing as a free ride.”, said resident Kennis Termini.

The revenue figure from speed camera will most likely decline over the time in future. “the current rate of citations will most likely go down as people become accustomed to the cameras being there, even if we move them within the areas we’ve set up,” said Mr. Wojahn

Optotraffic reports that Metzerott rate has decreased significantly as expected and desired” – said the City’s Public Safety Director Bob Ryan. The Metzerott Road location has been proven to be a goldmine for the City rewarding it the highest number of revenue figures.

In addition to the 10% budget cap, there are other limitations. There is a small administrative cost of around $3-4 per ticket. Also, the revenues from traffic tickets cannot be spent on anything the City wants; they must be spent on projects related to traffic and pedestrian safety.

When it comes to how to spend this extra revenue, most in the council said they haven’t given much thought to the subject, however will figure something together. There are however a few exceptions.

District 2 council member Bob Catlin said he prefers the revenues should be spent in line with the strategic plan that the City finalized last summer. “Once we figure out the revenues better, we should look to the City’s strategic plan and the five year Capital Improvement Project plan and see how the funds can best be spent.  I am not inclined to amend this year’s budget to add any significant new spending over the next seven months, but would program these new revenues into the budget planning for FY2012.”

Catlin also thinks a better candidate for the new revenue spending is about repairing City’s ailing streets. “We have lost over $1,000,000 in state aid for street repair in the last two years, with no end to these cuts in sight (2015).  So I would not call these revenues, as significant as they appear to be, a windfall to be used to fund a variety of new or expanded City programs,” he added.

District 1 council member Mr. Wojahn also has a wish list, which includes more bike lanes and pedestrian signals. “I would like us to work with the County to install new safety measures on Rhode Island Ave., along the lines that folks were suggesting at the NCPCA meeting a couple months ago.  I’d also like to see if we could use it on additional bike lanes around north College Park (perhaps along Edgewood or Lackawanna Street).  If we get enough, maybe we could do an additional pedestrian signal on US 1 somewhere,” said Wojahn.

Other council members want to take a wait and see approach on this spending matter.

We haven’t had official discussions yet though, but it’s a good idea to start early.  I’d want to sit down with other council members and seriously consider all options and see where the need is the greatest,” said  Marcus Afzali. His counterpart Denise Michelle also thinks the same.

(It’s a) Good question, but Mayor and Council hasn’t discussed, and I think it’s too early to speculate.  I’m sure we’ll be discussing it fairly soon,” said the City Mayor Mr. Andrew Fellows.