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Debate on traffic cameras' role in Lynnwood's finances

Lynnwood's budget is falling short, and now officials have to decide what role traffic camera money plays in the future.

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By Rikki King
Herald Writer
LYNNWOOD -- People in Lynnwood are finally starting to have an honest debate about the role that traffic cameras play in the city's shaky finances.
City leaders for years swore that the cameras were just about safety -- and some still do. Now, the budget is millions of dollars out of balance again, and some in city hall say camera-ticket revenue is needed to avoid job cuts.
That doesn't mean they are happy about it.
Cutting the cameras now could be devastating to the city budget, Councilman Jim Smith said. The council might not have any alternatives but to keep them up and running.
"It angers me that the administration has messed up the finances so horribly that the city's now dependent on this income," he said.
He worries that city administrators pressured police into making sure camera revenue stays strong. If not, the threat of cop cuts is clear. Lynnwood Police Chief Steve Jensen last week said that if the cameras go away, he could lose about eight officers.
Councilwoman Kerri Lonergan-Dreke said she expects the council to face an uncomfortable balancing act. They'll have to weigh distaste over dependence on camera-ticket revenue against making more cuts to city staffing in many departments, including police, she said.
"I think the revenue is going to be a factor in council members' decisions, absolutely," she said.
The city's multimillion-dollar contract with American Traffic Solutions, Inc., is up for renewal this fall. Some on the City Council say that when they vote on the contract, they can't ignore the money that's at stake.
Yet the number of camera-issued tickets -- and subsequently the revenue -- is down this year. It's unclear how that plays into the city's newly projected $3.5 million revenue shortfall. Mayor Don Gough also wants to set aside an additional $1.9 million to ensure the city's financial survival.
Those numbers are the point of much contention at City Hall.
Most on the council say they don't trust the mayor's numbers. They say they can't move forward until they have budget projections they believe.
The city's operating budget for 2011 was $48.4 million. In 2010, traffic enforcement brought in more than $4 million. The cameras cost $648,000 a year to operate, not counting the work hours racked up by cops and court staff to process violations. To cover the bill from American Traffic Solutions alone, the city has to issue at least 5,225 camera tickets a year.
Yet most at the city expect revenue from the cameras to taper off over time.
Camera-ticket revenues so far this year are down more than 50 percent compared to last year, according to numbers provided by municipal court administrator Jill O'Cain.
That's largely because Lynnwood stopped using cameras to ticket people for speeding in school zones when children weren't likely to be present. The council last year voted to reset the cameras to flash only during key pickup and drop off times.
That concession came at a cost.
In a memo dated June 30, 2010, Deputy Police Chief Bryan Stanifer wrote Assistant City Administrator Art Ceniza that changing the school-zone hours would mean a $2.4 million hit to the city's revenue.
Red-light violations are dropping more slowly. The number of red-light camera tickets issued through July this year is reduced by about a third compared to 2010.
Right now, nobody at the city can say for sure what that means for the financial future.
Meanwhile, some on council still contend the cameras are solely about safety.
Council President Mark Smith says camera revenue is too small a fraction of the budget to create dependence. He thinks most people in Lynnwood support the cameras for safety reasons, and he points to the drop in tickets as evidence that drivers' habits are changing.
The police department's review of crash data, however, showed inconclusive safety results.
The council president said that when the camera contract comes up for a council vote, ticket revenue will play no role in his decision.
"This is purely a safety issue," he said.
Councilman Loren Simmonds said he doesn't understand why the cameras are so controversial. He sees the pushback as being similar to how people reacted when they were first required to wear seatbelts.
Lynnwood has major traffic management issues, and the cameras help, he said.
That's why he expects to vote for renewing the contract, though he'd like to see an escape clause included.
It's not about revenue, but, "I can't say it doesn't play a role in it," he said.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

Lynnwood Police Chief Steve Jensen last week conceded that his department is dependent on the camera revenue to keep cops on the job.
He also said he was seeking an outside investigation into whether two key officers crossed legal or ethical lines in their dealings with the traffic-camera company. One sergeant offered himself up for marketing services for ATS, and a deputy chief asked about job prospects.
Jensen's comments came after being shown city emails The Herald obtained under public records laws.
The city's multimillion dollar contract is up in November. Meanwhile, Mayor Don Gough wants to make millions in cuts to get the city back on financial track.

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