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City’s red-light photo enforcement running in the red – and working

Police have been issuing fewer citations to drivers caught by the lidless eyes of the red-light photo enforcement cameras.

Indeed, since last July, the cameras' vendor, Arizona-based RedFlex, has spent more operating the cameras than the City has taken in in fines. That's critical because the City uses the fine revenue to pay RedFlex for the cameras.

At the same time, the City allocates money from its general fund to pay for equipment and staff time, including a judge. It is no longer being reimbursed for that money.

Upshot: the program is running a deficit.

But as City Attorney Dan Heid reminded members of the Municipal Services Committee Monday, that is exactly where he and other officials had one day hoped to be when the first cameras went operational on June 30, 2006.

"We contemplated from the very beginning that this is what we wanted to have happen, where the results would show some reduction in the number of citations. And we are seeing that," Heid said.

"It's a good thing to see this, although I understand that we're not paying for all the City's costs," said Public Works Director Dennis Dowdy. "There are still a lot of benefits that the program has brought us."

Committee Chairman Bill Peloza wanted to know where the City was pulling money from to make up the deficit, which is averaging about $15,000 a month.

"It's coming from somewhere, is it not?" Peloza asked.

The answer — it is not.

City Finance Director Shelley Colman said that if the revenue in a given month exceeds the fixed amount in the RedFlex invoice, the revenue would be applied toward the running deficit.

The deficit is left on the books as a negative until the City has the positive to pay for it. And if the City never gets the positive, it doesn't pay.

"Basically, we're running a deficit on both the RedFlex account and on the City account," said Councilman Wayne Osborne. "And since we owe money to RedFlex, we will have to pay that back at some time — if we have the money to pay it back.

"Hypothetically, strictly hypothetically, if we were to do away with Redflex, would we ever have to pay that $180,000 contractually? Because, if we continue with our current trend, that figure is only going to get larger."

Heid said that to the best of his recollection when Auburn entered into the contract with Redflex, it was with the understanding that the City's obligation would not exceed revenue received.

"Our obligation from the very beginning was not ever intended, ever, to exceed revenues actually received," Heid said. "If it doesn't pay for itself, they're the ones that carry the loss."

Police Chief Bob Lee said the benefits exceed the costs.

"The cost savings to citizens and the city overall with the whole spectrum of collisions and injuries rollovers is far greater than the cost," Lee said.

Councilwoman Largo Wales questioned whether intersections that aren't equipped with cameras should carry photo-enforcement signs.

"The implication that the signs are at every intersection does not promote friendliness in our community," Wales said.

Osborne agreed.

"I have heard at numerous times make people feel that they are being watched wherever they're at in Auburn, and that has a negative reflection on the City," Osborne said.

The committee will discuss the program again in April.

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NUMBERS AT A GLANCE

City data show that in the third quarters of the years 2008-2011, the percentage of red-light violations dropped as follows:

• Auburn Way South and 4th, southbound, down 24.9 percent; northbound, down 40.2 percent

• M Street and Auburn Way South, westbound, down 40.5 percent; northbound, down 56.5 percent

• 8th and Harvey: down 71.9 percent

• Total: down 39.6 percent

The data for school zone speed enforcement is as follows:

• Dick Scobee, down 64.6 percent

• Chinook, down 63.9 percent

• Mt. Baker, down 72.3 percent

For the years 2010 and 2011, the school zone data for the newest cameras is as follows: Lea Hill Elementary, down 42.4 percent; and Arthur Jacobsen Elementary, down 36.9 percent.

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