Michigan’s Privatized Camera-Cops? Really Bad Idea

traffic cameraMichigan lawmakers are once again considering allowing the installation of traffic cameras as a source of revenue enhancement. It’s not their first attempt.

Last year, Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-104) introduced a bill to permit municipalities the use of red light cameras at intersections — a legislative initiative the lawmaker quickly threw in reverse in the face of strong public opposition. Turns out, red light cams tend to increase accidents.

The latest push would allow spy-cams to catch speeders, and this time they’ve polished it up a bit with the thinnest veneer of actual concern for public safety. The photo radar cameras could only be placed within a half mile of “schools” and “institutions of high learning,” (more on that later).

So, is it really all about protecting the kids?

Not a chance. The school zone provision is little more than a guise designed to make the operation more palatable to the public.

The surveillance systems would be installed and maintained by private vendors such as American Traffic Solutions, Xerox, and Redflex Traffic Systems. The latter corporation, an Australian firm, recently made the news when one of the company’s principals, Karen Finley, was indicted on bribery charges by a federal grand jury in Chicago. The Newspaper.com (“A journal on the politics of driving”) reports shenanigans at Redflex cost a small fortune:

Defending against the Chicago bribery investigation cost the company $2.4 million. Being caught underpaying workers in California and settling the New Jersey class action suit cost another $1.5 million. School bus cameras have flopped, costing $4.3 million. The biggest hit of all was the $9.5 million lost from the Chicago red light camera contract, which removed 384 cameras on top of a net loss of 85 cameras in other cities. Overall, Redflex is operating 22 percent fewer cameras than it did last year.

The scandal ridden company responded by appointing a new CEO, hand-picked by a hedge fund manager out of New York, who is also chairman of the board at Redflex. Their new leader, an Aussie named Paul Clark, comes fresh from Melbourne Water — a utility with a scandal of its own — they over-charged customers nearly $300 million. At his new gig, Clark will pull-down $400 thousand a year, plus bonuses ranging between $180 and $400 thousand.

Shades of Michigan’s on-going Aramark scandal.

The new traffic camera bill, (SB-1063), was introduced by Sen. Virgil Smith (D-4). Sold as a means for cash-strapped municipalities (and Michigan has plenty) to create a steady revenue stream from speeders, but without the expense of live traffic cops — it sounds like a win-win. Curb expenses, enhance revenue, and keep the kiddies safe — what’s not to like?

Again, not so fast.

Cities and towns teetering on the fiscal cliff may be tempted to sign a multi-year contract with one of these companies. Especially vulnerable are those numerous municipalities that have experienced long-term fiscal stress and then subsequently sacrificed much of their skilled leadership and institutional memory — a condition which tends to result in a downward spiral of poor decision-making and mounting debt. And the benefit would be small, if existent at all. Under this legislation, the lion’s share of each traffic fine would go to the private vendor, leaving only the scraps for the municipality.

But, as deficits grow, bills go unpaid.

A recent example is the case of the City of East Cleveland, Ohio, one of the poorest cities in that state. A defunct traffic camera company out of Rhode Island, Nestor Traffic Systems, successfully sued the city for $638,000 in past-due bills — that’s 75 percent of the city’s annual property tax revenues. They’re going down.

The proposed legislation in Michigan has plenty of legal protections built-in for private vendors, and precious few for citizens.

Example — after an ordinance is enacted, residents would have only 30 days in which to conduct a formal petition drive to reject the measure. That’s clearly not enough time to educate a community, let alone take the temperature of the electorate on the issue. From the proposed bill:

SB-1063 Excerpt

Plus, the definition of a “school property” in SB-1063 leaves open the possibility for the contract to include sites that would not normally be considered as such, like private trade schools, karate dojos, and beauty schools, — as was the case in Washington, DC, where the administrative office of the Fashion Institute of Design was turned into an automated speed trap to make money for a corporate contractor.

Other perks for the private vendor in the Michigan proposal include:

The bill exempts speed camera vendors from the requirements of a private investigator, a move designed to head off legal challenges. The bill declares the records submitted by the speed camera vendor as automatically authenticated as prima facie evidence of the guilt of the vehicle owner, preventing any challenge to the foundation of the evidence. The law requires cities to destroy all evidence after 90 days, making it impossible to conduct an after-the-fact audit of accuracy, such as the one inBaltimore, Maryland that found 36 percent of the tickets issued were “questionable.”

This legislation sounds like an invitation for trouble. Let’s hope Sen. Smith sends it packing just as Rep. Schmidt did his red light bill.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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