Opinion/Analysis

By Reggie Connell/Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice

Editor’s Note: This is the 11th in a series of articles published by The Apopka Voice in 2018 that were the most noteworthy events of the year. The Apopka Voice will publish them starting today and running until Sunday, December 30th. On December 31st and January 1st, we will publish a poll and let the readers decide on which story is the most impactful of the year.

First published on August 16th, 2018

“You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…”

-Richard Nixon

 Like an unwanted guest who overstays his welcome, the red light camera program was ridiculed, insulted and threatened before finally being run out of town on a rail. Perhaps the Museum of the Apopkans will keep one of the cameras around for historic symbolism, but otherwise by January 1st, 2019 the RLC’s will be nothing more than a memory.

The Apopka City Council, at its meeting last night, voted 5-0 to end the red light camera program before a full house at Council chambers. It took about 60 minutes of public comments, discussion and votes to end the 12-year program. The unanimous vote brought loud applause from the mostly anti-RLC crowd.

You won’t have red light cameras to kick around anymore.

But before public comments began, Apopka City Commissioner Kyle Becker wanted to dispell a theory within the community and online about balancing the budget based on revenues from the RLC program.

 “When you look at the budget… the proposed budget that we received at our workshop, you have in there $463,000 in revenue through the end of December and with corresponding expenses which is the cost of service back to ATS of $300,000. So the difference is $163,000 of net revenue that we would see. One of the things I’ve heard in the community and through some of the media sources is if we extend this another year it’s going to solve our gap woes and that’s simply not the case if you use the number that’s in our budget worksheet. If you project that $163,000 for the remaining three quarters that adds up to $489,000. So it doesn’t address the $775,000 that we’re currently projecting on the budget that we were proposed at the workshop. So I just want to squash that idea pretty quickly.”

Editor’s Note: According to a statement by City Administrator Edward Bass at the July 5th budget workshop, net revenues of the RLC program are approximately $800,000-$900,000 per year. That figure along with a half-mill increase to the millage rate (which brings in an additional $1.4-$1.5 million) was what The Apopka Voice drew its conclusions from for its budget suggestions.

Frank Drescher, an Orlando resident and former Ocoee police officer who was representing the RLC vendor American Traffic Solutions (ATS), warned the Council about the safety ramifications this vote might have.

 “It’s critical everyone understand the impact of the decision tonight. The safety program that has been endorsed by your police department professionals is used not only as a safety tool to catch red-light violators, who break the law and put your community at risk, but it is also used as a crime prevention and apprehension tool as numerous videos have been used to identify criminals, all at no cost to the city taxpayers as this is a violator funded program. As you make your decision tonight, I hope you make safety your first priority. Seatbelts save lives. Airbags save lives. And red light cameras save lives.

William Gussler, an Apopka resident, pushed back on Drescher’s assessment that the program focused on safety.

 “A couple of things I’d like to respond to from the distinguished gentleman from ATS that caught my attention right away… I know he is a former police officer from Ocoee. But he did mention his concern coming over here and making sure his kids were safe. He’s well paid by ATS to be here. It’s not motivated by his concern for safety and that’s the basis of my point here. It’s not about safety it’s about the profits and that’s not why we’re here and that’s not why we put them in in the first place.”

Derek Ryan, an Apopka resident and longtime opponent of RLC’s, believes the program is unnecessary government intervention.

 “As a landscape salesman covering central Florida, I travel the roads at a rate of 3 to 4 times the typical driver. Because of this, on occasion, I received what I refer to as a “bomb threat letter” in the mail with a picture of my license plate along with some very intimidating words telling me that I recently committed a horrible sin of driving through a red light and hurting no person or no property. Every time I receive these bomb threats I fight them and I beat them because they have no legal leg to stand on. They are typical government intimidation to raise revenue and when the government tries to solve problems, there are always unintended consequences.”

Glen Chancy, an Apopka resident who ran for Mayor of Apopka in 2014 advocating against the red light cameras, also challenged the assertion that it was a safety program.

  “If this is really a safety program why aren’t we willing to fund it with taxpayer dollars? So if we are not willing to fund it with taxpayer dollars, if we require a positive return, then are we really talking about safety? What other safety programs are we willing to cut? None. But this we can.”

Rod Olson of Apopka was the final speaker and only advocate for red light cameras outside of the ATS representative.

 “I’m quoting the Insurance Institute of Highway safety ‘red light cameras reduce injury crashes by 25%’. The Federal Highway Administration says right-angle crashes show a 22% injury versus a 2% injury rate because of rear-end crashes. The Centers for Disease Control says red light camera increases rear-end crashes but reduces side-impact crashes and reduces overall crash severity. Safety I think is the most important thing.”

Commissioner Alice Nolan, who at the July 5th budget workshop proposed the idea of using RLC revenues to balance the budget after receiving numerous emails and phone calls in support of the program, was swayed by the overwhelming amount of calls and emails she received after that initial proposal.

 “I got a lot of emails and phone calls from the citizens and I appreciate it because when it comes to something like this I do want to hear from you guys. Even if we differ in opinions I really do want to hear from you because, in the end, that’s how we have to vote.”

Commissioner Doug Bankson, who also called for using RLC revenue over a millage rate increase in the July 5th workshop, was also swayed by the overwhelming will of the people.

 “Slamdunk. It is the will of the people. That’s what determines what we decide. The information is also what we have to factor in, and you know it’s a moving target. You read some reports and they’re this way and others they’re the other way. The challenge with this is it’s not a scientific poll so where do we get that information? We don’t have a general source of that from the people. Quite honestly I’ve heard from people on both sides of the fence, so both arguments are passionate. For me personally, I don’t like red light cameras but I don’t like speed limits either. It goes back to what’s best for us and what do the people want? The best that I can poll for myself, draw from online polls and all of these different things is it seems to be the will of the people, so the other things to me are a moot point. Discussions about revenue are an important thing, but I just want the citizens to have the right information and then they tell us what they want our community to reflect and represent. I’ve been convinced the majority of people want to see red light cameras gone and that’s what moves my decision.”

 Commissioner Alexander Smith had no speeches but made his intention clear.

 “I’m ready to vote.”

 Becker also pointed out the initial goal of the program and how those numbers increased over the last few years.

 “With a reduction in Violation Notices being the primary goal… in 2014 there were 22,283 violations… in 2015 there were 23,204… in 2016 there were 31,773. In 2017, there was still 26,602, but according to ATS, we had eight cameras off so it may have been flat or maybe even an increase. And even if we’re going to extend this for a period of time it’s not going to solve our budget gap. In fact, we have several cameras that are taking a loss. They don’t even pay for themselves and why would we do that? If we wanted a program like this we would fund it out of the general fund. There are just too many things that don’t add up to reveal itself as having the safety impact that people think it has.”

 Apopka Mayor Bryan Nelson, who ran against the RLC program in the 2018 mayoral election, made the final case for balancing the budget without RLC revenues.

 “Obviously I ran on getting rid of red light cameras for a lot of reasons. I also voted for red light cameras back when I was in the Legislature, and I don’t regret my vote… and then a couple years later I proposed a bill to try to take some of the sting out of what the red light cameras did, and one of those things was to put a ticket on the tag so you wouldn’t lose your drivers license if you didn’t pay the ticket. But as for the budget, we look at revenue and we look at the budget… But I’ll tell you when we look at last year’s budget including red light cameras we took out $1.3 million from reserves to balance the budget. We also took out an additional $2 million in loans to balance the budget. This year which includes only three months of red light camera money… and we’re going to add $600,000 in additional debt not from this Council, but we’ve still reduced our budget by $900,000 so we’re getting close to a balanced budget without red light camera revenue after January 1st… So I think when you look at even the revenue side… I think we can get to a point where we feel comfortable with a very, very small tax increase. It may be a slight one and still keep us under Orange County without revenue coming in from red light cameras.

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