Balto. County gathers more in penalties

Totals are expected to reach $9.24 million at end of fiscal year

New programs spur rise

Stoplight cameras, false-alarm fines anger some residents

January 16, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

It's getting expensive to thumb your nose at the law in Baltimore County.

The county's annual collection of fines and penalties is expected to nearly triple, from $3.53 million in the last fiscal year to $9.24 million. And two new programs that often hit unsuspecting residents account for almost all the increase.

Cameras the county began installing at busy intersections in December to monitor red-light runners are expected to yield $4.8 million for the budget year that ends in June.

With the expansion of a false-alarm law to include residences as well as businesses, revenues from penalties are projected to rise from $800,100 to $1.81 million.

"It floors me, that much money," said Shirley Le Doyen, a Lutherville resident, who has complained to elected officials about the program. "No wonder they wanted that law. I can't believe that."

It's not as if the county needs the cash.

Although Baltimore County hasn't raised its property or income tax rates in years, it is still taking in more money than it projects spending. The past fiscal year ended with $148.4 million left unspent, the largest surplus in 10 years.

"Let's cut taxes somewhere else if we are going to get that revenue [from fines]," said John O'Neill, past chairman of the Maryland Taxpayers Association and a county resident.

The growing cost of being a scofflaw in Baltimore County has generated some anger.

One resident sent a letter to the Police Department, calling officers who monitor false alarms "Gestapo zealots." The department refused to disclose the writer's name.

"Taking care of your taxpaying citizens is your job and why you get a paycheck," the resident wrote. "I know there are many others who don't appreciate these types of tactics to force people who abide by the law to subsidize programs for those who don't."

Nonetheless, higher penalties serve a valuable purpose, officials say.

"We're not doing this to generate revenue," said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for the county Police Department. "We want to get people's attention so they change their behavior."

An epidemic of false alarms is deterring police officers from more important duties, and motorists who zip through red lights are posing a deadly danger, Toohey said.

In 1998, police recorded 86,499 false alarms. Nearly one in five calls for service that police received that year -- excluding traffic incidents -- was a false alarm. The number of alarm systems has grown as concern about crime remains high, and more systems mean more false calls.

"That diverts police from the real responsibilities they must face," said Toohey. "It's a very severe and real problem, because the officers get complacent."

The county's program was established for business alarms in 1998, with fines starting at $50 for a third false complaint and rising as high as $1,000 for subsequent violations. The program was expanded this past summer to include residences, charging them on the same penalty scale.

Police officials say the sanctions appear to be working.

The latest records show a 12.6 percent drop in residential alarm calls from July through September 1999, compared with the same period a year earlier. Business alarm calls went down 23.4 percent during the same time.

It's too early to tell much about red-light cameras, but despite the fines, the program might be winning some converts.

Leo Brannon, a retired Army officer from Dundalk, admits he was strongly opposed to the cameras when he learned the county had bought them.

"My major concern is that it is subject to abuse," he said. "Over a period of time, its purpose could be expanded to where it is invasive to routine, everyday activities."

But those worries were tempered when he received a $75 citation in his mailbox, showing his daughter behind the wheel as she rushed through an intersection on her way to Dundalk Community College. She had already missed an early class.

"This served as a wake-up call," Brannon said. "I have to admit, it served a useful purpose."

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