Despite a lot of legitimate concerns, the Jefferson City Council recently rushed to approve putting automated speed-trap cameras in local school zones.
The action came after a private company's salesman made a dog-and-pony show before the council back in October. The salesman's pitch had barely finished before some council members were breathlessly taking the bait.
Mark the victory for a slick salesman over a naive, ill-informed city council.
Let's cut to the chase here: This issue isn't about public safety, it's about money.
The private company involved will split fine revenue with the city and both stand to make money by doing — well, nothing. Automated cameras will photo your car's tag and a speeding ticket will be mailed out. It's the perfect speed trap that will cost the city next to nothing to operate.
It was just last year that the state approved allowing these automated speed-trap cameras to be put up in school zones. How do you think that legislation came about? Did some legislator suddenly decide automated technology would be a good thing to put in school zones?
Hell no. It was industry legislation promoted by private companies and their lobbyists who want to do these kinds of deals in Georgia and other states.
And it's just a first step. Once the dust settles from this move, the speed-trap companies will be back wanting to expand the use of their cameras in other locations outside school zones.
It's all about the money.
You might wonder how many speeding tickets do Jefferson officers currently write in school speeding zones? How many wrecks are currently happening in our school zones during school hours? Is there a major problem here that speed-trap cameras will help?
Ask your city councilman to answer those questions and watch as he gives you a puzzled, blank look. He won't be able to answer because he never bothered to ask those questions (with one exception, Jon Howell voted against the measure.)
And he won't answer because he knows that the entire issue is about money, not the safety of school children. It's a solution looking for a problem.
One of the best ways to see how these kinds of questionable schemes work in the real world is to see how they've worked in other places.
A little tour:
• In New Miami, Ohio, the small town installed speed-trap cameras, but was later sued. The litigation lasted for six years and the town was ordered to repay $3.5 million in illegal fines back to those who got speeding tickets. The judge ruled that the automated cameras deprived vehicle owners of their due process rights. As a result of the controversy and expense, the mayor was ousted in November's elections. That, and other problems in Ohio with speed-trap cameras, led that state's legislature to revise their law by reducing the amount of state funding to local governments equal to what they are collecting by speed camera revenue. New Miami is in financial trouble because of their decision to install speed-trap cameras.
• Problems in Girard, Ohio, with speed trap cameras in a construction zone has led to lawsuits. The cameras were put up during road construction and were supposed to be set back to the normal speed limits when the construction ended. That didn't happen and over 7,000 people were illegally ticketed due to the screw-up.
• In East Liverpool, Ohio, citizens raised hell about the speed-trap cameras and forced a special election to decide if they should remain in place.
• In Long Island, New York, speed-trap cameras were put in school zones, but $2 million in fines had to be forgiven due to problems with the speed-trap cameras.
All of this is just a form of "stealth taxation." It's raising revenues for the city without having to raise the tax rate. And the public is being abused in the process.
In New Miami, mentioned above, the town of 2,000 people were issued 45,000 speeding tickets over a 15-month period. Tell me that isn't an abuse of power by fleecing citizens' wallets.
Despite what has been posted on the Jefferson Police Department's Facebook page ("There was NEVER nor will there be any request made by this agency for red light cameras"), this isn't the first time the JPD has wanted to have automated cameras issue tickets in town. In fact, the JPD has indeed asked for automated red light cameras in the past.
In 2008, the JPD pushed the city council to install red light cameras at Hwy. 129 at I-85 with a proposal from a private company, similar to the current speed-trap camera setup. A private company came before the council in 2008 promoting the plan and it was strongly supported by the JPD.
"This is mainly a public safety issue," said JPD chief Joe Wirthman during the 2008 red-light camera effort.
In the end, the city council refused to approve the red light cameras in 2008 after this newspaper printed a story showing that most wrecks at the red lights in question were rear-end collisions, something automated cameras often make worse.
The bottom line here is that the Jefferson City Council acted rashly and without sufficient information or thoughtfulness in agreeing to allow a private company to put up automated speed-trap cameras in the city around school zones.
If speeding in local school zones is a dangerous problem, then why aren't JPD officers already writing a massive number of tickets?
It's very easy for companies to sell their stuff by promoting a "it's for the children" mentality. That tugs at everyone's heart. Nobody wants a child to be injured.
But it's just a sentimental — and cynical — manipulation.
These speed trap cameras aren't being put up to improve public safety around schools, they're being put up to generate a windfall for the city and the private company by reaching into your pocket for revenue.
And if the courts in Georgia rule that automated speed-trap cameras are illegal, as was done in Ohio, then Jefferson may one day find itself having to rebate a lot of fine money down the road (pun intended.)
Would serve the town right if that happens.
Karma can be costly.