Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Speed cameras bring big bucks

Chevy Chase Village is collecting millions from motorists

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Chevy Chase Village is deciding what to do with its speed camera ticket revenues — expected to approach the total cost of operating the village, but legally restricted to funding only public safety or pedestrian safety programs.

Speed cameras have been taking snapshots since October of speeding drivers on Connecticut Avenue and elsewhere in Chevy Chase Village, the municipality of about 2,000 residents that borders Washington. Each ticket carries a $40 fine. According to village records, the speed-abatement program has yielded about $250,000 per month. Chevy Chase Village receives $23.75 from each $40 ticket.

The village’s fiscal 2009 budget offers a glimpse of what the village expects in terms of ticket revenue and expenses.

The budget plans for $3.5 million to pay for the Safe Speed Program — most of that going to the camera provider — and $7.4 million in ticket revenues during 2009. The budget also anticipates a carryover of $2.4 million from 2008, which adds up to a net of $6.3 million in public safety funds next year.

The village costs $4.5 million to operate, according to its fiscal 2009 operational budget. The speed camera budget is written up separately from the operational budget, reflecting the divide that Maryland law imposes on speed camera revenue.

The law that enables Montgomery County and municipalities such as Chevy Chase Village to install speed camera programs guides how its revenues can be used. Police and local elected officials acknowledge, though, that the legal wording is vague.

The money is restricted to ‘‘public safety purposes, including pedestrian safety programs,” but cannot supplant a government’s existing expenditures for those projects. In other words, a new sidewalk in Chevy Chase Village can be paid for using speed camera revenues. But existing projects cannot be turned over to speed camera revenue funding, as that could indirectly pad other parts of the village’s budget.

A public safety committee will describe its ideas for speed camera-funded projects to the village Board of Managers on Monday.

Douglas B. Kamerow, who chairs the village Board of Managers, said he expects crosswalks, sidewalks and streetlights to be among the ideas.

‘‘We already had one thing going which is perfect for this,” Kamerow said, ‘‘a needed walkway along Brookville Road.”

A sidewalk on Brookville Road between Bradley Lane and Western Avenue ‘‘will be probably the first thing we use it for,” Kamerow said. He said the sidewalk has been talked about for ‘‘a long time.”

The village is trying to figure out if it is possible to piggyback on the state’s budget for Brookville Road improvements, since it is a state road.

Crosswalks and sidewalks elsewhere in the village are on the table, too.

‘‘We have young kids going to Blessed Sacrament school, we have nannies pushing strollers,” said Roy A. Gordon, chief of police for the village.

Collisions in the village are down 70 to 80 percent, and drivers are slowing down thanks to speed cameras, according to Gordon.

‘‘We’re also seeing them speed up after passing the fixed poles,” he said.

Gordon wants to get photographs and updates posted on the village’s Web site to show the public how funds are being spent. He believed funds would not be used to hire more police officers except in the unlikely occurrence of ‘‘a horrific crime wave” hitting the village.

‘‘This is a violator-funded program ... There’s not going to be any nebulous spending,” he said. ‘‘Once I think you start asking too many folks [how funds can be used] then you almost pigeonhole how you can spend the money.”

Raised crosswalks or repainted crosswalk lines are ‘‘no brainers,” he said.

A budget committee memo that accompanies the village’s 2009 budget said the funds could be used for ‘‘reconstruction of selected drains, curbs, and intersections” or ‘‘underground conduits to support street lighting, emergency communication and other public safety systems.”

The memo said ‘‘other projects, (e.g. developing a park on the Wohlfarth property and revitalizing the Connecticut Avenue corridor), insofar as there is not a clear public safety objective financing, will also need to be drawn from other sources.”

The memo called the speed program ‘‘a significant factor in overall Village finance.”

Other municipalities are in various stages of apportioning their speed camera revenues.

The City of Gaithersburg is dispersing the money into increased police training and equipment purchases, as well as capital projects such as sidewalks and crosswalks, according to Tony Tomasello, an assistant city manager.

The city budgeted about $2.4 million revenues next year from the program, but Tomasello expects more than a third of revenues will go back into administering the program.

The City of Rockville’s speed camera program cleared under $500,000 in its first year, according to Emad Elshafei, chief of the city’s traffic and transportation division. The city launched its speed program in March 2007.

Rockville police are using the revenue to pay two new police officers for traffic enforcement and pedestrian safety, and for pedestrian walkway designs by a civil engineer. The city’s pedestrian bikeway system and street lighting are planned for improvements using the money.

The city is ‘‘definitely seeing an overall reduction in speed,” according to Rockville Police Chief Terrence N. Treschuk.

The county’s much larger speed camera program generated $2.6 million last year.

‘‘Everyone is new at this, so I think there’s going to be a learning curve for the municipalities,” Tomasello said. ‘‘The law is certainly subject to interpretation.”