A rush to judgment on county speed cameras?

A rush to judgment on county speed cameras?

February 21st, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Pardon the pun, but what was the rush for speed cameras in Hamilton County?

A resolution Wednesday by the Hamilton County Commission approving a contract for two camera-equipped speed detection lasers seems likely to be short-lived.

The contract was approved in a 5-4 vote, but three commissioners who voted for the resolution, having heard plenty from their constituents in the interim, said Thursday the issue will be revisited next week with a different outcome likely.

"I've told [Commission Chairman Fred Skillern] to put it back on the agenda," Commissioner Chester Bankston told Times Free Press reporter Louie Brogdon. "I'll make the motion, or second it or whatever next week."

The matter came before commissioners, and without public notice, in a combined agenda and voting session Wednesday, which was necessitated by last week's snow. Normally, issues are discussed in an agenda session one week and voted on the next week.

Instead of putting off what should have been expected to be a contentious issue -- another resolution was put off -- they moved forward, discussed the matter and voted.

And perhaps now wished they hadn't.

Sheriff Jim Hammond said Thursday the county has been studying the project for almost three years. It has been before the commission study committee and has been on the agenda of the commission before, he said.

So who didn't see this coming?

The upside of the idea, if there is one, is that $12.50 of the $50 civil ticket would go to a driver education fund similar to one used by the city of Chattanooga. Indeed, Hammond said the county would partner with the city if the resolution is approved and signed.

However, $25 would go to Brentwood, Tenn.-based Applied Technology Partners, which would supply the speed-detection LIDAR (Light Imaging Detection and Ranging Unit) devices, and $12.50 would go to the county general fund.

In the city program, traffic camera citation revenue from five Chattanooga Police Department "speed vans" funds a five-week, new-driver training course in which residents pay $50 and the remaining $300 is covered by the city if the resident passes the course. If not, the resident forks over the other $300.

The sheriff's idea to offer the course is a good one -- the more, better-trained drivers, the better, right? -- but the potential number of tickets that need to be issued to put the program in line with the city boggles the mind.

With 23,195 licensed drivers between the ages of 15 and 22 in Hamilton County, according to Tennessee Department of Safety & Homeland Security records, it would take 24 tickets -- at $300 per course -- to pay for each driver.

Commissioner Larry Henry said the funding mechanism isn't workable.

"I've been here for a long time," he told Brogdon, "and I'm man enough to admit a mistake. And yesterday was a mistake."

Speeding drivers, if the resolution is not revoted and is signed, can be ticketed without ever being pulled over, getting a ticket through the mail within a week. The LIDAR devices allow officers to take videos of the drivers and their license plates.

What was not clear is how much other malfeasance -- driving under the influence, just to name one thing -- would be missed by officers simply mailing the tickets and not making the actual traffic stop. And how much pressure would be brought to bear on collecting from speeders when the tickets don't put points on one's driver's license and debt for unpaid tickets can't be put on a person's credit history.

If a ticketed driver doesn't pay, Hammond said in an email Thursday, Applied Technology Partners wouldn't get its cut, either.

He also said Hamilton County would pay nothing up front for the devices and that the contract has no specific length and may be severed with a 30-day notice.

It appears, though, this idea is about as popular as Red Bank's traffic cameras, on which the plugs were finally pulled in 2013. But it wouldn't hurt the county to seek another funding mechanism for the driver education course, which, in the city, has graduated some 1,800 drivers in four years.

Clarification

A brief editorial in this space Tuesday urged members of the Citizens for Government Accountability and Transparency to end the effort to recall city Councilman Chris Anderson. Though the organization once was erroneously named as part of the recall effort, it was not and is not a part of it. Nevertheless, we believe the recall should be stopped by all those who associate themselves with it.)