O'Malley: Counties should stop paying speed camera contractors per citation

Governor makes first comments since Sun investigation

December 11, 2012|By Luke Broadwater and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley said Tuesday that state law bars speed camera contractors from being paid based on the number of citations issued or paid — a so-called bounty system approach used by Baltimore City, Baltimore County and elsewhere in Maryland.

"The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume," O'Malley said. "If any county is, they need to change their program."

In brief comments, O'Malley weighed in for the first time on criticism of speed cameras since The Baltimore Sun published an investigation of the devices, focusing on the city's network of 83 radar-equipped cameras. Several state lawmakers have since proposed changing state law that governs how counties and cities operate speed camera programs. Among the proposals is to add language clearly barring payments per citation.

O'Malley, who sponsored the legislation that authorized speed cameras statewide, reiterated his support for the systems, crediting them with contributing to a 25 percent reduction in traffic-related deaths. Fatal crashes in Maryland dropped from 659 in 2001 to 487 last year. More than 460 fatal crashes have been recorded in Maryland in 2012, according to the governor's office.

The governor said he does not support proposals by some lawmakers, including Baltimore County Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Democrat who plans to introduce legislation to penalize speed camera vendors who issue erroneous tickets by fining them. O'Malley said the courts are the proper venue to adjudicate citations.

"If the counties took a better and deeper look at their programs and operated them in compliance with state law, I think it would address the problems," O'Malley said. "I think the remedy is called due process. It has to stand up in court."

The Sun has found inaccuracies among six of the city's cameras, most recently at one on Patapsco Avenue in Brooklyn. A Chevy Blazer was clocked at 46 mph, according to a citation issued in the city, even though time-stamped photos indicate the vehicle was doing 18 mph at the time.

In addition, The Sun has shown that it is impossible for motorists to verify the alleged speeds with the information printed on tickets issued by Baltimore County, Howard County and the State Highway Administration.

The governor's comments come as the city negotiates a five-year contract with a new speed camera vendor, Brekford Corp. of Anne Arundel County. City transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said the negotiations are not expected to wrap up until after the first of the year. She did not respond to an email asking whether the city would rule out a pay-by-ticket contract with Brekford.

The speed camera program has been lucrative for Baltimore and its current contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions.

The city took in $19.2 million in revenue from speed cameras last fiscal year — $4.2 million more than expected. City officials said they expect revenue to drop as the cameras lead drivers to reduce speeds, and budgeted $11.4 million for this fiscal year. In the first five months of the fiscal year, the city has taken in $9.6 million in revenue.

More than $48 million has been collected since the program began in late 2009.

The city has paid Xerox about $13 million of that three-year total. Under its contract, which is about to end as the city switches vendors, Xerox gets up to $19.20 of each $40 citation. The company's share is smaller for citations logged by certain cameras, such as those where red light cameras exist.

Mark Talbot, a Xerox vice president, said in an earlier interview that the type of contract does not affect its operations: "There isn't a violation that's issued that isn't reviewed and approved by our customers — the county or state or city agency," he said. "So we don't issue violations. We don't control when they do get issued."

Talbot said some governments prefer flat-fee contracts, including the one the State Highway Administration has with the firm, while others opt to pay Xerox a percentage. "For me, either way," he said. "The industry is successful when it's doing the job we say it can do, which is to reduce violations."

Several legislators said state law bars contracts that pay a share of each ticket. When the General Assembly legalized speed cameras statewide in 2009, the legislation included a provision that says if a city or county hires a contractor to operate its speed camera system, payments to the company cannot be based on the number of tickets issued or paid.

Some local governments contend that the prohibition doesn't apply to them because they — not the contractor — operate the system.

The aim of the legislative provision was to guard against "abuse of the motoring public," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. James N. Robey, a Howard County Democrat, who previously served as county executive and police chief.

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