Lynnwood to reconsider lucrative traffic-enforcement cameras

LYNNWOOD — Nine years after its inception, the city of Lynnwood’s traffic-enforcement camera program continues to bring in millions of dollars each year.

Public records show the city’s revenue at $19.2 million since the cameras went live in 2007. Of that, $5.8 million went to the camera vendor, Arizona-based American Traffic Solutions.

The current contract with the vendor expires in mid-November. Before then, the City Council will have to vote on whether to renew the contract, city spokeswoman Julie Moore said.

Lynnwood is the only Snohomish County city that continues to use the controversial devices. At first, the cameras were touted here as safety measures that would prevent catastrophic T-bone collisions and save children from speeding drivers. Years ago, after repeated questioning and public records requests by The Daily Herald, leaders at City Hall and the police department admitted they had become dependent on the camera cash flow.

Every election since, aspiring City Council members have been reluctant to express an opinion about the cameras. During her campaign, Mayor Nicola Smith said she heard from fans and opponents alike.

Now, more than halfway through her four-year term, Smith has received maybe 10 complaints about the cameras, she said. She expected a lot more, based on the negative feedback she heard during her campaign, but the complaints received were “big ones, like I’m never coming to Lynnwood again,” she said.

It’s time for the future of the cameras to become part of the conversation as the city makes long-term plans and budget goals, Smith said.

“We need to get this on the council’s plate so that we can have a discussion about the usefulness of them and how much they do cost versus how much we bring in,” she said. “Part of the cost is if we don’t have red-light cameras, then how many extra police officers do we have to hire to be on the street corners? We have to look at the efficiency of the program as well.”

Nine years later, it still isn’t easy to get the city to discuss the money generated by the cameras.

It took Lynnwood nearly two months to produce revenue data in response to a Jan. 7 public records request by the newspaper. Under state law, the camera tickets are treated like parking infractions, meaning they don’t go on driving records. At first, the city claimed it was not possible to break out camera revenue from total parking enforcement revenue, because the municipal court collects the fines and the city doesn’t have that data.

The court is exempt from state public records law and has no legal obligation to process records requests.

The city later produced data about camera revenues — something it had repeatedly done in years prior — after being pressed for detail on how it was keeping track of millions of dollars a year in camera cash.

The new data show a slow rise in ticket revenue over the years with a few peaks, including a spike in 2010 before school-zone enforcement was limited to school hours. In the early years, officials predicted that revenues eventually would drop as drivers adjusted their behavior and stopped running red lights. That prediction has not panned out. That may be a result of more traffic in the city overall, Moore said.

“Anecdotally, we know we’re seeing more traffic,” she said. “I think in the future we’re going to be pulling traffic counts to see if we have an increase in people traveling through our intersections. We don’t know if there’s a correlation or not.”

In 2015, the cameras brought in $2.76 million. In 2014, it was $2.4 million.

In comparison, the city collects about $52 million in total annual revenues for the general fund. That means cameras account for about 5 percent. The rest comes mostly from sales tax and property tax.

The reliance on camera revenue used to make up a much larger piece of the pie. Most local cities draw 4 percent or less of their revenues from traffic enforcement. At one point, Lynnwood was at 16 percent.

Each red-light and school-zone ticket costs $124, though Lynnwood can charge up to $250 if the camera says a driver’s speed exceeds 35 mph in a school zone.

There’s no easy way to measure where the money has gone, Moore said. By law, the revenue goes into the general fund. About a third of that fund goes toward police. In the past, the police department has linked the jobs of as many as eight officers to camera revenue.

The police department is currently budgeted for 70 officers, police Cmdr. Jim Nelson said. That’s down from 80 before the recession.

If the cameras were discontinued, the council “would need to decide how to amend the budget should a change occur,” Moore said.

The city uses cameras to ticket people who roll through red lights, including those making right turns without complete stops, and others who speed in school zones. After a warning period, the city started issuing tickets generated by the cameras in August 2008.

There is no timeline for when the camera contract will show up on the council agenda, though it has come up at the finance committee.

“It’s on the radar screen, but there have been so many other things going on,” Council President M. Christopher Boyer said. “We’ll get it on there before too much longer. We need to make sure there’s a good opportunity for conversation.”

The last time the contract was negotiated, in 2012, the city added a clause allowing it to break up with the vendor with 90 days’ notice. It’s worth noting that since then, many faces have changed at City Hall, including the mayor, the finance director, the municipal court administrator and six out of seven councilmembers.

About 24,000 camera tickets are issued each year in Lynnwood, records show. Of those, about three-quarters get paid, and most of the rest are dismissed or sent to collections.

Lynnwood has 12 red-light cameras and four school-zone cameras. The most recent citation data available, from 2007 through 2013, shows 144,004 red-light tickets issued and 35,449 school-zone tickets.

The city website’s section on the enforcement cameras also has changed in recent years, including the frequently asked questions. In 2011, one of the questions was “Is this only a revenue-generating program?”

The answer? “This is a safety program.”

Now the city’s website only describes where enforcement cameras are located and options for paying fines.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

Lynnwood traffic enforcement camera revenue

These are gross revenues for red-light and school-zone tickets generated by traffic-enforcement cameras. The cameras went live in 2007 and ticketing started in 2008.

2008: $883,827

2009: $2,090,360

2010: $4,098,891

2011: $2,223,637

2012: $2,521,365

2013: $2,285,304

2014: $2,374,699

2015: $2,757,547

Total: $19,235,630

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