It’s been over a decade since Apopka installed red light cameras at several key intersections in town, and for almost that long it has been one of the most contentious issues facing residents, drivers, elected officials, and political candidates alike.
And it was never truer than in the 2018 Apopka municipal elections.
In a poll taken by The Apopka Voice shortly after the elections ended, 10.6% of respondents stated that the red light camera program was the number one reason they voted for the candidates they chose, and 27.6% included it as a top five issue.
Three candidates, Mayor Bryan Nelson, Commissioner Alice Nolan, and Commissioner Alexander H. Smith, all ran against the red light camera program and subsequently defeated an opponent that supported it. Despite revenues estimated to be between $800,000-900,000 generated by the red light cameras, all three were steadfastly opposed.
Here is what they said during the election:
“My response is easy…I’m going to get rid of every red light camera in Apopka,” Nelson said in a mayoral debate against then-Mayor Joe Kilsheimer.
Nolan had a similar posture.
“I have done a lot of research into the red light camera situation,” she wrote in an election guide published by The Apopka Chief in March. “Depending on where the research is done and how the questions are asked you get a study saying they are good or a study saying they are bad. Something I noticed in each of the articles I read was that people are overreacting when approaching a red light. They slam on their brakes or stomp on the gas to get through. Many people dispute their tickets and win for many reasons. Red light cameras may help in not running lights but they are also causing more accidents and stressful driving by intersections that have them. Overall I would get rid of red light cameras and find alternative solutions to the difference in the money they make.”
Smith too was in favor of the red light cameras being removed.
“After sitting and listening to the presentation to the City Council (in 2017), I was left with the impression that the red light cameras were being used to generate revenue for the city,” he told The Chief. “That being said and if that is the case the cameras need to go. I have also noticed that at intersections drivers seem to make sudden stops to cause rear-end accidents. I have also talked with citizens that drive out of the way to avoid intersections with red light cameras. I do support the police department that cameras help to solve crimes. Other cities have cameras that are used to help solve crimes but are not used to issue traffic citations.”
After the election, Nelson re-stated his desire to turn the red light cameras off. In an interview with The Apopka Voice before his swearing-in, he said this about phasing-out the program:
“I think we’ll just wait until the contract runs out which is at the end of the year,” he said. “The other option would be to turn them off now and pay the vendor what we owe, but that would be an incredible waste of taxpayer money.”
In a 2017 City Council vote, the red light camera program survived by a slim 3-2 margin, with Commissioner Doug Bankson voting for, and Commissioner Kyle Becker voting against the program. Bankson and Becker are the only two remaining commissioners from the 2017 City Council, but given the opinions of the three new Council members, it seemed as though the red light camera program would finally go dark.
But then, a funny thing happened at the July 5th City Council Budget Meeting/Workshop. Light emerged at the end of the tunnel. A distant, foggy red light that is.
Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass, despite cutting the 2018-19 Fiscal Budget to its bones, was still approximately $800,000 from balancing. He offered up four options to close the gap:
- Increase the millage rate
- Continue the red light camera program
- Cut the budget additionally
- Utilize the general fund reserves
After ruling out additional cuts and dipping into the general fund reserves, Bankson contrasted the idea of raising the millage rate with extending the run of the red light camera program.
“Obviously, the red light camera program is an emotional issue and I personally don’t like them. But looking at the bigger picture and because we did go through this last year and extended that program as opposed to a millage rate increase. Keep in mind that a quarter mill is going to put us at 4.0376% and that only gets us $775,000. It’s close to the amount we need, but not quite the amount. It’s also important to know that annexation is a big part of our growth, and the Orange County millage rate is 4.048%, so when we get closer to their number, and literally to hit this $800,000 number we’re going to have to be at the same number… so why would someone in the county want to annex into the city? We’re automatically losing revenue that could be coming into the city. So I think that’s a number we really need to keep in mind that we want to keep far away from so it’s an advantage to annex into the city of Apopka. So millage rate is something you never want to do politically, but if we’re in a dangerous situation where we have to recoup I understand, as long as we can go back down later… which leaves us with red light cameras. I know that was something during the campaign, but let me break this down…everyone I have talked to after I laid out the facts has agreed to keep them except one person. First of all, these aren’t tax dollars. If the red light cameras go away it will come out of the taxpayer’s pocket or we will have to cut services. These revenues are coming in from infractions, and 70% of them are from out of town drivers. Again, there are different studies out. Some say it doesn’t reduce incidents, others say it does, but from our numbers and from my observations, it is something that is making us safer. The bottom line is we’re here to accomplish the will of our citizens within the rule of law. And if our citizens overwhelmingly, when they know the facts, say they want the red light cameras gone, then we are obligated to uphold their will. I’m fine with that. But as we lay this out, as we get information out to the public and they really weigh-in, then rather than this being an emotional response, it’s an educated decision.”
Nolan was also open to the idea of phasing-out the red light camera program beyond the proposed December 2018 deadline instead of pulling a large income stream from the budget when it was needed to close a gap. In fact, she suggested it earlier in the meeting. She referenced a large group of Apopka residents who had contacted her after the election who were in favor of keeping the cameras in place even before the budget shortfall was known.
“I know there’s a strong group that doesn’t like them (red light cameras), but if we get the education out on red light cameras, I think it would help. I know since I took my seat I have gotten an overwhelming amount of emails and phone calls of people stating how much they like them, which is a lot different than what I had heard on the campaign trail. I don’t know why it flipped so much, and it’s weird how that happened, but I did challenge people when I was on the campaign trail to prove me wrong, and as much as I could find good, I found bad. And so I personally think that we should consider keeping them and build up our revenues and make the decision to get rid of them later. That is a big item in our revenue base that we would be taking out, and that is hard to do. I think going through during an election season and asking isn’t the best way. When things are calm is when we should ask. There are a lot of things this city wants. The kids want a skate park, others want more festivals and things like that. If they knew 70% of the revenues came from people outside the city, they might just want to keep them around. I’ll go with what the citizens want. I just see this as our best option at the moment.”
Smith did not state a preference during the meeting but later seemed open to the possibility of delaying an end to the red light camera program as well.
The day after the budget meeting, Nelson told The Apopka Voice his vow to end the red light camera program still stands.
“I campaigned on getting rid of red light cameras and will do what I can to fulfill my campaign promise.”
Becker, who was the most vocal opponent on the Commission against red light cameras in 2017, also supported a millage rate increase.
“Because the idea is we can come back later and go down on the millage rate, we should do a half mill, because the quarter mill doesn’t even get us to a balance. If that’s the philosophy, this allows us the opportunity to potentially put economic development back into play and we can start coming up with the sizzle-thing within our city outside of just great services. It also allows us the opportunity to start putting money back into the reserve balance which gets us back to a level playing field.”
The City Council meets again on July 18th at 7 PM for its regular meeting, but the millage rate will be an agenda item and expect this discussion to be rekindled.