Traffic camera ban would cost Ohio cities millions

Some Ohio cities and villages, already hurting from recent state changes that reduce their funding, will lose millions more if a proposed ban on automated traffic cameras goes through.

In September, the Ohio Senate will take up House Bill 69, which would effectively ban automated red-light and speed cameras in Ohio. The bipartisan legislation, introduced by a pair of southwest Ohio representatives, cleared the Ohio House by a 61-32 vote in June.

Springfield officials primarily oppose the ban on public safety grounds, arguing the cameras help reduce crashes and free up police to focus on more serious crimes.

But there is also an economic reality to the ban, said Kent Scarrett, a lobbyist for the Ohio Municipal League, which represents Ohio villages and cities in the Statehouse. The camera ban would amount to yet another funding cut for some communities, he said.

“The revenue component cannot be denied,” Scarrett said. “Our folks always considered this more of a safety issue… But you know, our demands are not going away for the need to generate revenue. Yet, the state seems to be not quite as supportive of a partner as they’ve been in the past.”

Springfield generates about $250,000 per year on red light camera violations, said city manager Jim Bodenmiller. The city has generated approximately $3.3 million since the red light camera program began in 2006.

“A loss of that right now, with all the other losses we’ve suffered at the hands of the state cuts, is alarming,” Bodenmiller said. “I’m not going to dispute that.”

However, Bodenmiller said “first and foremost” it’s a safety issue.

“We’ve proven it here,” Bodenmiller said. “We’ve had a drastic reduction in the number of accidents and the number of red light runners.”

Traffic cameras netted around $16.5 million for eight Ohio cities and villages that had them in 2012, according to the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, the state legislature’s research arm. That doesn’t count camera revenues in six other communities — including Elmwood Place, the Hamilton County village that inspired the ban after raking in $1.5 million in just six months before a judge shut ordered its cameras shut down — for which the LSC couldn’t obtain 2012 full-year data.

“If we pass this bill as is, this is going to be a tax increase, because communities are going to have to make up that (loss of revenue) somehow,” Rep. Rex Damschroder, R, Fremont, said last month before voting against the ban.

Recent changes in state law have negatively impacted local governments’ bottom lines, Scarrett said.

In 2011, the state legislature repealed the estate tax, which meant local governments across Ohio lost an average of about $370 million a year. And local government funding in the most recently-passed two-year state budget is about $330 million less compared to what it was in 2011.

“In this era we’re in right now…it’s just chipping away the opportunities for us to raise revenue on the local level,” Scarrett said.

But Rep. Ron Maag, R-Lebanon, one of the bill’s two sponsors, said he’s not worried about the potential loss of revenue to cities.

“When we pass laws and have punishments for things, it’s to alter behavior, not to make money,” Maag said. “Case in point, when we put people in prison for a felony, we don’t look to make money from them by making license plates. I have to reject that argument. Certainly it might have some (fiscal) impact, but it shouldn’t be part of the equation.”

Seven communities in the Miami Valley — Springfield, Dayton, Hamilton, New Miami, Middletown, Trotwood and West Carrollton — have automated traffic cameras, which in total raise around $4 million a year for cities’ municipal operations.

Supporters of the automated traffic camera ban say the cameras violate due process and are just a way for cities to make money. They also question the cameras’ impacts on public safety.

But opponents of the ban, including police groups, say cameras should be regulated to weed out bad actors, but not shut off entirely.

If legislators end up approving the ban, Ohio would become the tenth state to ban automated traffic enforcement cameras, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Local communites impacted

Bodenmiller called the possibility of banning the cameras in Springfield “a great setback” in terms of safety. The city’s citations have decreased from 17,927 in 2007 to 6,638 last year. The citations dipped to 5,033 in 2011 due to the closure of the overpass at Spring and North Streets in Springfield.

“We’ve had a 50 percent reduction in dangerous accidents, T-bone accidents,” Bodenmiller said. “They’re scary and to have 50 less of those in a year are significant. I hope the legislature, instead of banning photo enforcement, I really hope they take a look at some best practices language.”

The city only enforces red light camera violations, and only at the intersections with the most accidents.

“You’ve probably heard me say this before, but if it was about revenue, we would have them everywhere and we wouldn’t have signs up warning people about it,” Bodenmiller said. “We want people to know they’re there, and we want people to not run the red lights.”

Traffic cameras raised about $2.4 million for Dayton in 2012, or about 1.5 percent of the city’s $155.1 million general revenue fund.

Dayton spokesman Tom Biedenharn said in an email that losing the camera revenues would not represent a “major financial impact.” The city is more concerned the proposed ban would increase crashes and strain the police department.

“The combination of cutting funds and eliminating tools we can use — taken in total — places additional pressure on local budgets trying to provide public services with less resources,” Biedenharn said. “In this particular case, the loss of the camera enforcement tool could end up diverting police away from more serious crime issues to address speeding and red-light violations.”

Cameras in Trotwood brought in $294,000 in 2011 (information for 2012 was not available). That paid for two and a half police officers’ salaries, said police Capt. John Trotwood. Without the cameras, the city would either have to lay the officers off, or ask voters to approve a tax increase, Porter said last month.

West Carrollton Police Chief Rick Barnhart said turning off the cameras would have a substantial impact on the city’s budget. Cameras brought in $112,000 to the city’s general fund, which funds city operations, in 2012.

“There’s no doubt it would be at least an overall $100,000 a year cut. So, that would be kind of like losing another major business in the city,” Barnhardt said.

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