Former Lynnwood official critical of city’s reliance on traffic camera revenue

LYNNWOOD — Lynnwood started using traffic-enforcement cameras in 2007 for safety reasons, but that motive now provides “emotional and political cover” to justify an unhealthy reliance on ticket revenue, according to one former city leader.

Jim Smith served on the City Council for 24 years. At his last council meeting in December, he urged the council to phase out enforcement cameras.

“The red-light cameras started with a decent idea when it started, and it was small and controlled, but now it’s become a monster, totally out of control,” he said.

Smith was on the council when Lynnwood’s camera program started five years ago. He supported the cameras because they were sold as safety measures. He later voted against expanding the program, and he eventually became one of the few voices at Lynnwood City Hall against the cameras.

Smith also was one of the first city leaders to admit that Lynnwood’s sagging budget had become dependent on cash from the cameras.

The city of Lynnwood long has been besieged by controversy surrounding its robust traffic-enforcement program. The city uses cameras to ticket people who allegedly roll through red lights and speed in school zones. City Council members must decide by Feb. 13 whether to renew the multi-million dollar camera contract.

City and police officials for years insisted that the program was all about safety, not revenue. Yet crash data and police officer emails showed a different story behind the scenes. Police Chief Steve Jensen in August admitted that without the money from red-light cameras, he likely would have to lay off officers.

Jensen and Lynnwood Mayor Don Gough didn’t return requests to comment for this story.

When the cameras went live, many city leaders didn’t realize how much money could be made, Smith said. It took at least a year before that became evident.

The program raked in about $4 million in 2010.

Meanwhile, the economy ran aground, and the city’s other revenue streams dried up.

The city’s dependency on camera cash grew over time, Smith said.

“It’s not how it was supposed to be,” he said. “It was supposed to be totally for the sake of public safety. Now the cameras can’t just be cut off. It’s like a heroin addict; you have to wean them off slowly with other means.”

Initially, Smith thought the program would prevent traffic fatalities.

He says police administrators felt the same way.

“The police didn’t have any incentive for financial reasons,” Smith said. “They had incentive to do this because they thought it was a public safety issue. I really do believe that.”

Though records show that some of the money was used to hire new officers, Smith said most of the revenue from the program has been spent outside of the police and fire departments. In fact, the program has hurt the police budget more than it helped, Smith said, partly because of how much time officers spend reviewing video of alleged violations.

Back in 2007, there was no talk in Lynnwood about what kinds of red-light violations would be ticketed, or how many would be rolling right-hand turns versus potential T-bone crashes, Smith said.

It didn’t come up, most likely because no one asked, he said.

Smith said he’s still not convinced that Lynnwood ever had serious safety concerns in school zones.

“It has not saved one life in the school zones since it’s been enacted — that’s the cold hard truth,” he said.

A recent study by the camera company did show a reduction of speeding violations in school zones outside Meadowdale High School and Lynnwood Elementary. However, a significant percentage of that decrease came after police stopped using the cameras to issue tickets, and collect fines, for violations at times when children weren’t likely to be present.

Lynnwood’s enforcement-camera contract originally was set to expire in November. City council members in the fall voted to postpone a new contract until a lawyer finished investigating the police department’s relationship with American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona-based camera company. The lawyer determined that some of the communications were troubling, but nothing that broke laws or the city’s ethics code.

The temporary contract extension is supposed to expire next month. Council members now are scheduled to discuss Jan. 23 whether to continue the contract. No final action can be taken at that work session, but the documents say the council must resolve the issue by Feb. 13.

The proposed contract extension would continue the camera program into November 2016. It includes an amendment that the city could terminate part or all of the agreement “without cause and for any reason.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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