In bucolic Sykesville, the No. 1 complaint received by Police Chief John Williams is motorists speeding on quiet streets. But with a force of only seven officers, he said, there is no way to enforce traffic laws with radar guns alone.
Encouraged by the experience of other Maryland towns, Williams recommended a new approach: speed cameras. Earlier this year, the Town Council agreed to take advantage of a 2009 state law giving municipalities the option to install the electronic devices near schools and in road-construction zones.
But residents of the Carroll County municipality said no way, voting by a 3-2 margin in a referendum this week to overturn the ordinance permitting the automatic cameras.
Sykesville, a mostly residential community of about 4,000 with a historic railroad depot and a smattering of antique shops, now faces a dilemma affecting small towns throughout the country: How do officials deal with the problem of speeding with limited resources at a time when citizens are suspicious of anything that can be seen as government encroachment in their lives.
And Williams is wondering what to do next.
"Will the complaints keep coming? Yes," the 39-year law enforcement veteran said. "Do we have the staffing level to keep up with those complaints? No."
The first-of-its kind referendum in Maryland was prompted by a petition drive led by Chris Martin, a town resident spurred to action by the March council vote. He quickly gathered enough signatures to put the measure up for a vote.
"I'm kind of old-fashioned, and I really, really believe in what's becoming the archaic American notions of freedom, liberty, privacy," Martin told the Eldersberg Eagle earlier this year. "I'm not the creepy, right-wing militia member type, but I do feel that I have an obligation to protect those rights when I feel they're being threatened."
Among the arguments that prevailed by a 321-208 count in the Tuesday referendum was the contention that the cameras were nothing more than a "revenue grab" on the part of town officials.
Sykesville Mayor Mike Miller, a self-described conservative Republican, said he had reservations about speed cameras but decided to support them after two public hearings early this year.
"My main reason is that most of the input from the public was positive," he said. And in a town that has had to leave a police position vacant and cut other services, he found the prospect of raising money from speeders preferable to raising property taxes.
Plus, there was data to back up the problem. At the request of the police chief, a contractor measured the level of speeding in Sykesville. The result from one site close to Sykesville Middle School: 800 speeders a day going 12 mph or more over the limit — the threshold beyond which tickets can be issued under state law.
The 12 mph standard was adopted by the General Assembly last year when it passed a statewide bill allowing counties and municipalities to adopt the speed cameras. That margin above the posted limit was included in the bill largely to address concerns it would lead to excessive tickets for minor infractions.
Williams agreed that installing cameras might have produced government revenue, but he said that is true of all traffic enforcement. The difference, the chief said, is that part of the money from cameras would have stayed in Sykesville — under state law, up to 10 percent of the town's operating budget. With traditional enforcement using police with a radar gun writing tickets, all of the fine money goes to the state and the town has to pay overtime when officers testify on their days off.
The legislation set the fine for violations at $40 with no points — a significantly lower penalty for speeding violations enforced by conventional means.
The cameras have won at least grudging acceptance in more urbanized parts of Maryland. Montgomery County was the pioneer under local legislation that preceded the statewide law. Soon after the law took effect last year, Baltimore City and Prince George's County installed cameras. Baltimore County just launched its speed-camera program in three school zones. Under another provision of the state law, authorities have also been using cameras to enforce speed limits in three work zones in the state since last fall.
Maryland's incorporated municipalities have been slower to move in that direction. Tom Reynolds, manager of research and information at the Maryland Municipal League, said that outside of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, he knew of no cities or towns except Sykesville that have adopted speed-camera ordinances. (Baltimore and Howard counties have no municipal governments; no other Carroll locations have speed cameras.)
"It's still a relatively new bit of authority, so it's probably not unusual for folks to move slowly in that direction," Reynolds said.