Ohio cities could lose millions if traffic cameras banned

Cities made $16.5 million from red light and speed cameras in 2012. Lawmakers are considering a statewide ban on the cameras.

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

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

The public is divided on the cameras, according to a poll taken earlier this year.

A March Rasmussen Reports poll found that 45 percent of adults nationwide think the traffic cameras are good and make streets safer. But just as many, 46 percent, disapprove of the cameras.

But there is an economic reality to a ban on the cameras in Ohio, 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 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.”

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In 2011, the state legislature repealed the estate tax, which meant local governments across Ohio lost an average of about $370 million a year.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 — Dayton, Springfield, Trotwood, West Carrollton, Hamilton, New Miami and Middletown, — have automated traffic cameras, which raise a total of $4 million a year for the cities’ operations.

Supporters of the 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 be shut off entirely.

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

Local communities impacted

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. Revenues from the cameras drastically spiked last year once the city began ticketing speeders, as well as towing to enforce unpaid citations, but the city expects them to level off to around $1.7 million this year.

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

“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.”

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,” Barnhart said.

Besides bringing in money that goes back into city coffers, the cameras also free up officers to focus on higher-priority crimes and makes the city safer, Barnhart said. And unlike taxes, the camera citations are paid by people who are breaking the law, he said.

“As we’ve lost other revenue, this was a source that helps replace some that we’ve lost. The way the state has cut funding, certainly we’ve gained no extra,” Barnhart said.

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 last month. Without the cameras, the city would either have to lay the officers off, or ask voters to approve a tax increase, Porter said.

Traffic cameras in Springfield generate about $250,000 a year, said city manager Jim Bodenmiller.

“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.

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.”

Staff Writer Michael Cooper contributed to this story

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