Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red-light cameras in Houston and the price of democracy

Some in the Houston media are giving the mayor and city council heat for a proposed settlement with its red-light camera contractor (ATS) - delayed for two weeks at the Wednesday city council meeting - that may eventually cause taxpayers to bail out the contract, which was supposed to be paid solely with red-light ticket fines. But under the circumstances, the settlement seems like a reasonable, if not an inevitable result.

Here's the extenuating circumstance: A citizens group gathered by gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot, and a majority of Houstonians voted against red-light cameras. Later, a federal judge said the plebiscite couldn't override the city's contract with the red-light vendor, but the majority of city councilmembers, including the mayor, decided to succumb to the will of the voters. So the city council first made an unpopular decision, was rebuffed at the polls by their constituents, and now faces expenses associated with undoing a hastily implemented contract, which turns out to have just been a bad idea that's caused them nothing but grief.

Casting another fly in the ointment, brothers Michael and Randy Kubosh, who launched and funded the referendum drive against the cameras, got the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, the day before the city was to consider the settlement agreement, to make them a party to the suit in order to challenge the judge's ruling that the plebiscite was illegal. That prompted the city attorney to recommend against the settlement with ATS unless the Kuboshes dropped out of the suit. The council delayed the decision for two weeks to sort things out.

What a mess. Politically, the Kuboshes have won the red-light camera fight, with even camera proponents like the mayor now toeing the no-more-cameras line. Legally though, their fight has morphed from one over taking down red-light cameras to a different, unrelated battle over the limits of initiative and referenda, and the new focus could disrupt their original political objective. I'm not sure quite how I feel about that. Part of me wishes they'd have declared victory and moved on.

From Grits perspective, given the city's contractual obligations and federal court rulings in the case, the settlement looked like a good deal. Kuff points out that, with some $3 million in the bank, "the up front payment and most of the first year’s payment after that are covered. The city – presumably, an agent on their behalf – would take over collection duties from ATS. We’ll see how that goes." So if the taxpayers are on the hook, it won't be for at least another couple of years, and maybe not then depending on collection rates.

How much might taxpayers eventually have to pay? The total owed is $4.8 million, but a local TV station reported the city had $2.3 million in the bank while the Mayor's office told Kuff they had $3 million in that account. So taxpayers could be on the hook for $1.8 to $2.5 million judging from that range of estimates. Mistakes can be costly, in politics and life. OTOH, in the long run Houston drivers will save a LOT more than $2.5 million in fines from having the cameras taken down, and they pay taxes, too.

(BTW, Kuff mentions another upcoming Texas plebiscite on red light cameras: "Finally, in red light camera news elsewhere, League City residents will vote on whether or not to extend that city’s contract with a red light camera company. The contract runs through 2014, and a proposition about it will be 'in the next special municipal election', whenever that is. Red light opponents have a pretty good track record in these elections, and I’m sure they will be gunning for this one as well.")

The red-light camera fad is an example of seeking criminal-justice solutions to engineering problems out of essentially a financial motivation. Lengthening yellow-light times at those intersections by one second would do more than cameras and tickets to reduce accidents, but that wouldn't have generated the new revenue stream. (They can and should still lengthen yellow-light times at problem intersections, in fact.) Perhaps it was a costly lesson, but if the settlement gets done, Houston can chalk up that $1.8 to $2.5 million to the price of democracy.


Jim Bigham said...

Readers should be aware that if Mayor Bill White had not removed the "opt out" clause in the original contract with ATS, Houston taxpayers would be on the hook for nothing, zero, zilch. It was a game of chicken to prevent the State Lege (and/or Citizens) from moving to cancel the red light agreement. The tactic failed and the taxpayers foot the bill.

That said, it seems like a reasonable settlement that I'm sure will pass soon.

Anonymous said...

The Houston city council and Mayor Bill "Sanctuary City" White should have to pay that judgement out of their own pockets.