Mayor Landrieu’s 2017 budget has been released, and true to form, Landrieu proposes to nickel and dime the citizens of New Orleans for scraps of revenue. In order to generate an additional $5 million, Landrieu plans to double the number of red light and speed cameras, adding a whopping 56 cameras around the city.
Not all of them will be fixed in place, either. Landrieu is also proposing to add ten mobile cameras to the city’s automated enforcement arsenal.
To justify this massive expansion of Big Brother, Landrieu presents the cameras as a universal good that only offend scofflaws. “If you don’t run a red light, you won’t get a ticket,” Landrieu told reporters earlier this week. “If you don’t speed in a school zone, you won’t get a ticket.”
Well, that’s a complete and utter lie. The public record is rife with cases of clear error with respect to the so-called “safety” cameras.
For example, in 2012, I wrote two columns regarding the school zone speed camera that was installed on Freret at the former site of Audubon Primary. The first related to a reader who wrote in to me to note that she was ticketed outside of school zone hours. This was plain on the face of the citation. Clearly, the city is not properly vetting tickets or the cameras.
In my second column, I addressed a more pressing fact – that there isn’t a valid school on Freret because Audubon primary isn’t there anymore. You can’t have a valid school zone without a school, and that school zone was established for a school moved before the cameras were installed. That’s heaping illegality on top of illegality.
Since I wrote those columns, it does not appear that the situation has improved greatly. There have been various reports over the past few years of improperly issued tickets, usually due to clerical mistakes that simply shouldn’t slip through.
However, Landrieu and his ilk essentially present the cameras as a type of “sin tax,” only punishing bad behavior, such that upright, virtuous citizens have nothing to fear. I’ve personally heard this argument before, and it’s particularly grating.
Innocent people are ticketed, and what’s worse, the remedies for those wrongfully accused are lax at best. The first means by which a camera ticket may be challenged is in the Administrative Hearing Center, the same kangaroo court that adjudicates parking tickets. After waiting perhaps several hours, your challenge will be heard by a peculiar species of contract attorney (a hearing officer) who serves as both prosecutor and judge.
Needless to say, the system is rigged and provides the barest semblance of due process. Unless you have virtually incontrovertible evidence, the citation will generally be upheld.
Considering the inadequate review of camera citations at all levels, citizens certainly may get tickets regardless of whether they “run a red light” or “speed in a school zone.” After all, if Landrieu had wanted the system to be foolproof, it would have been a simple matter to provide ironclad procedural protections from the outset. However, procedural protections cost money. Paying for due process renders safety cameras less of a cash cow.
In any event, by presenting camera tickets as a species of tax, proponents essentially acknowledge that their primary aim is to generate revenue. Yet even on that score, New Orleanians are getting a raw deal.
With a traditional tax, money is extracted by citizens and businesses and then used for public services. We can debate the utility of government versus money in the pocket of citizens, but both inarguably benefit the local economy in some fashion. Government hires people and provides services, while citizens spend money and fuel private enterprise.
On the flipside, a person who gets a camera ticket may reconsider a planned dinner excursion and instead eat beanie weenies at home to keep his budget in order. Local officials may forgo filling potholes when somebody else is taking a cut.
With the “camera tax,” a chunk of the money extracted from the citizen goes out of state. In this case, it journeys all the way to Arizona, the home of American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the private corporation hired to manage the automated traffic enforcement program. In 2008, the Times-Picayine reported that ATS would receive “$30 a ticket for the first 150 tickets a month from a camera and a smaller fee as the number of tickets mounts.”
In March of this year, WDSU News reported that “[t]he city has issued 1,467,247 citations since the traffic safety camera program started in 2008.” At $30 per ticket, that would have netted ATS in excess of over $44 million. Given that there’s a sliding scale here, though, let’s be generous and say that the number is half that, or $22 million. That’s still a lot of money.
Thus, it’s clear that tens of millions of dollars have left the City of New Orleans for drier pastures in Arizona. Money that may otherwise have gone either to the city or to local enterprise is simply siphoned out.
This is not the way a “sin tax” normally works. We’re taking a substantial amount of cash out of the local economy and sending it away. ATS surely spends its money on operations, but most of those operations aren’t here and don’t benefit the city. Can that really be best for New Orleans?
If the cameras at least improved traffic safety and thus spared the NOPD the burden of traffic enforcement, that would at least be something. Alas, even that claim is suspect. Studies are mixed on whether traffic cameras reduce the impact of accidents. While T-bone collisions are mitigated, rear-end collisions tend to skyrocket. Arguably, the cameras are mixed bag safety-wise.
Nevertheless, when revenue is the only concern, schemes like traffic cameras become an attractive option to cash-hungry politicians. I simply propose that we not forget what this is, and appropriately regard this budget as an ongoing travesty.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.