Baltimore to pay new speed camera vendor $11.20 per $40 ticket
By Scott Calvert,
BALTIMORE — Baltimore plans to pay its new speed camera contractor $11.20 per $40 citation, continuing its use of a so-called bounty system that Gov. Martin O’Malley and key state legislators say is illegal under Maryland law.
“Talking to our attorneys here, we’re within state law,” said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Transportation. She said no contract has yet been signed with the new vendor, Brekford of Hanover, Md.
The city paid its previous contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, up to $19.20 of each $40 ticket, amounting to about $13 million since late 2009. Xerox’s contract ended Dec. 31.
The city’s plan for how to pay Brekford had been unclear until Thursday. Last month, the Transportation Department’s director, Khalil A. Zaied, publicly called it “our goal” to abandon a pay-by-citation model, which critics say gives contractors a financial incentive to process dubious citations. Officials with the city and Xerox have said profits never played a role in the citation approval process.
The city’s speed camera program has been dogged in recent months by revelations of erroneous tickets being sent to drivers. The city announced Monday that it would replace all of its cameras with newer models, and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) on Wednesday reiterated calls for “zero errors.”
The state’s 2009 speed camera law prohibits jurisdictions from paying contractors based on ticket volume if a contractor “operates” the program. The city and several Maryland counties contend that the government — not the contractor — is the operator.
But a sponsor of the 2009 law, Sen. James N. Robey (D-Howard), has said his aim was to bar any contracts that paid vendors a cut of each ticket. The approach has been called a “bounty system” by opponents in court. Robey said he thinks governments should pay a set fee, regardless of how many citations are generated, to remove any incentive to issue questionable tickets.
O’Malley said last month that arrangements such as the city’s violate the law: “The law says you’re not supposed to charge by volume. I don’t think we should charge by volume. If any county is, they need to change their program.”
Howard and Baltimore counties also pay their vendor — Xerox — based on the number of tickets. Baltimore County switched from a flat-fee model last year, saying it was better financially for the county to pay Xerox about $19 per ticket. Howard officials say they control so much of the process that Xerox cannot affect the number of tickets issued to drivers.
Baltimore has yet to finalize a five-year deal with Brekford. Its Board of Estimates voted in November to cut ties with Xerox after concluding that Brekford would generate more money for the city.
Barnes, the city spokeswoman, said paying by the ticket is better for taxpayers than a flat-fee approach. If the number of tickets for a given month were low and the city had a flat-fee deal, the city would effectively overpay, she said. “We don’t want to get into a situation where we’re paying too much,” she said.
The city has collected more than $48 million in speed camera fines over the past three years.
Several state lawmakers say they intend to push the General Assembly to outlaw any contract based on volume, regardless of who operates the program. If that happened, Barnes wrote in an e-mail, the city would determine “the best way to pay a vendor for services that minimizes the risk taxpayers will ultimately have to pay for processing services that the city does not utilize.”
Flat-fee contracts are becoming “the industry standard” nationwide, said David Kelly, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads, a pro-speed camera group funded by industry heavyweight American Traffic Solutions.
“You have more and more cities and counties and states going into a flat-fee service as opposed to fee per ticket,” Kelly said, adding that he supports the shift.
“That ‘gotcha’ incentive really erodes public trust and confidence in the program if people think they’re just out there to get you to drive up as many violations as possible.”
Also Thursday, a City Council committee approved a bill that would require quarterly reports to the city showing all speed camera and red light camera tickets issued to yellow buses — privately and publicly owned — used to transport schoolchildren.
“The reason for it is accountability,” said council member Mary Pat Clarke (D), who sponsored the bill after a Baltimore Sun analysis found that area speed cameras had caught hundreds of school buses speeding near the schools they serve, often with children aboard.
Privately owned buses have received at least 800 automated speed citations in Baltimore since 2009, while city-owned buses got more than 50, according to citation records. Baltimore County public school buses triggered speed cameras more than 100 times over a recent two-year period.
City school officials acknowledged they had no way of knowing when privately owned buses got tickets while carrying public school students, because the companies are not required to notify the district when their buses receive citations.
Clarke’s legislation would require the city Department of Transportation to prepare reports containing all red light and speed camera tickets for school buses. The reports would also have to indicate the outcome — whether the ticket was paid, appealed, overdue or dismissed.
If the bill is approved by City Council, the first report would cover the period between the law’s effective date and June 30. Clarke said her goal is to make information in the reports available to the public.
— Baltimore Sun
Luke Broadwater contributed to this report