Arlington councilman wants city to ditch red-light cameras

09/04/2014 4:02 PM

09/05/2014 8:22 AM

At least one City Council member wants to pull the plug on red-light traffic cameras in Arlington.

District 3 representative Robert Rivera, who supported installation of the cameras in 2007, said the city doesn’t have the ability to make scofflaws pay their delinquent fines so it’s unfair to the violators who do pay up. What changed his mind, Rivera said, was Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright’s recent decision not to block motor vehicle registration renewals for drivers who owe cities money for red-light violations.

“Eventually when our citizens learn there is no incentive for anyone to pay the fine, they will stop paying,” Rivera said. “This will not go on your credit. It’s a nonmoving violation, so it doesn’t show up on your record. Since there is no incentive to pay the fine, the cameras should be removed.”

Other council members say they still believe that red-light cameras are playing a critical role in making intersections safer, even if some violators refuse to pay.

“Forget the money. All I’m interested in is less people getting hurt and killed in intersection collisions,” Mayor Robert Cluck said. “It’s a dangerous world out there.”

At Rivera’s request, the council is tentatively set to discuss the red-light-camera program at its Sept. 16 meeting.

Arlington has cameras at 20 intersections, according to the city website. The program has brought about $10 million in revenue to the city since 2007, not counting the estimated $2 million from this fiscal year, officials have said.

Half of the $75 fine for violations goes to the state. The other half, after expenses, goes into city’s general fund, which pays for services such as police, fire, parks and libraries, officials have said. Some revenue is also used to fund anti-drunken-driving enforcement.

With unpaid fines topping $2.5 million, Arlington had hoped to reach a deal this year with Wright’s office to begin withholding vehicle registrations from scofflaws. The Arlington City Council voted in May on proposed agreements to pay the county $5.24 for every delinquent fine that was cleared.

But Wright ultimately rejected the proposal this summer. Fort Worth and a handful of other Tarrant County cities were interested in the same arrangement, he said.

“The longer we looked at it and the more people I talked to here at the county, the less desirable it was. The downside for the county was much greater than the upside,” said Wright, adding that his clerks would have to notify residents why they couldn’t get a registration and then help them again on a second visit once the fine was paid. “It’s a controversial issue. It’s going to remain controversial.”

The Arlington Police Department’s website states that unpaid violations are sent to a collection agency after two notices. However, a state law adopted in 2007 prohibits those civil penalties from being reported to a credit bureau.

The City Attorney’s office said Arlington has the option to report delinquent fees to credit bureaus because its contract with the red light camera vendor was entered into prior to the law’s passage. However, that is not currently being practiced.

The police department can also ask the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to place a scofflaw hold on a vehicle registration until the delinquent fees are paid. While a state law implemented in 2009 has allowed tax assessors to enforce that hold, they don’t have to.

“Other counties apparently can do it without a whole lot of controversy. Our politics are more conservative,” Wright said.

District 4 Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon, who represents west Arlington, said she plans to urge Wright to reconsider. But even without the county’s help, Wilemon said she will continue supporting use of the cameras.

“I personally know people that have been devastated by these accidents at intersections where people run through the light,” Wilemon said. The cameras “have been effective,” she said. “They save lives. It’s a public safety issue.”

According to a 2011 city audit, right-angle crashes at camera-monitored intersections decreased 31 percent, and rear-end crashes declined 17 percent.

Rivera agrees that the cameras have helped improve intersection safety by making drivers more cautious. But he also said the cameras will become less effective once more and more motorists realize there isn’t really a penalty.

“This isn’t about the potential loss of revenue. This is about fairness to every citizen of Arlington,” Rivera said.

Kelly Canon, Arlington Tea Party vice president, said she was pleased to hear that Wright declined to hold vehicle registrations “hostage” for the city. The group is collecting signatures in an effort to force a referendum next May on whether to ban red-light cameras, Canon said.

Such resident-driven efforts have worked elsewhere in Texas. Responding to public opposition, the Houston City Council voted to shut down its program in 2011.

Wright said he expects renewed efforts to eliminate red-light cameras during the next session of the Legislature. Either way, he said, the county will not take on the added responsibility of helping cities collect their unpaid red-light fines as long as he’s tax assessor-collector.

“There will always be resistance to turning law enforcement over to a machine,” he said. “That is always going to be an issue for Americans and Texans in particular. There is a healthy skepticism of government anyways. It’s part of our heritage.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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