RLC 2.0: The Hunt for Red Light Cameras – Part Two
By Reggie Connell/ Managing Editor of The Apopka Voice
The Apopka Voice took a poll a few weeks ago which concluded that 76.7% of its readers oppose the red light camera program. That’s valuable knowledge for a news site. It’s information that many savvy publishing entrepreneurs could use to write articles that advance that issue and perhaps increase their readership.
But no one has accused me of being a savvy publishing entrepreneur lately.
I’m going to break the cardinal rule of giving the people what they want and disagree with approximately 76.7% of my readers. I’m in favor of keeping the red light camera program in Apopka for at least another year.
Anyone still reading? No? Okay, you must be rushing off to Facebook to “like” this article.
If that’s not the case, I may start a support group for those few of us that are still in favor of RLC’s. It will be a small gathering that will probably disband after only a few get-togethers, but the healing will be real.
For those of you still following a confessed-RLC-truther, let me clarify my opinion by saying that I am not a resident of Apopka and therefore do not vote in its municipal elections. But if I did, the RLC program would not be a core issue for me. In fact, a candidate’s opinion on red light cameras would not play much of a role in my hypothetical vote no matter where they stood.
What would, however, is public safety, keeping City employee salaries competitive, and having an appropriate amount of police officers to protect this growing city.
According to the leadership of the Apopka Police Department, red light cameras are about public safety, and the revenues they raise are not a part of the APD’s assessment. But that analysis has been challenged by elected officials, politicians on the campaign trail, and countless Apopka residents on social media and during public comments before City Council. They argue that RLC’s make the roadways more dangerous and it’s all about the income they generate.
There doesn’t seem to be much common ground on this issue, but could a grand bargain exist?
Let’s shift the focus for a moment to the 2018-19 Apopka fiscal budget. To summarize, Apopka City Administrator Edward Bass estimates that he trimmed $5-6 million from original requests by department heads, which represents approximately 10% of what was in the first draft. He also approved only four out of 50 requests for new hires. Among those cuts and request denials was merit pay raises for city employees; cut from a previous 6% ceiling down to 3%, and a request to replace four police officers that are being re-assigned to the School Resource Program, which was a state-mandated move, and essentially leaves the APD with four fewer officers on the streets.
All of these cuts and denied new hires still left the budget with approximately a $700,000 shortfall.
To cover that deficit, the City Council voted 5-0 to raise the millage rate 1/2-mill to 4.2876, which added a projected $1.4-$1.5 million to the budget, cleared the shortfall, and left an additional $700,000-$800,000.
According to Bass, restoring merit pay raises to 6% for City employees would cost approximately $750,000 ($250,000 per percentage point), so the millage rate increase could potentially cover it, but what about the loss of four Apopka officers?
The APD is currently below the state average of 2.5 officers per 1,000 of the city’s population. They are also near the bottom of officers per square mile of comparable cities on the I-4 corridor. The APD is at 3.1-3.2 per square mile, while in comparison Orlando is at 6.5. With the hiring of four additional officers, the APD would nearly maintain its level per 1,000 (from 2.17 to 2.16). Without the addition, it drops to 2.09.
Four additional officers would add approximately $500,000 to the 2018-19 fiscal budget.
Perhaps a compromise the City Council could entertain would be to vote to turn off the red light cameras in 2019 instead of 2018. This, in a way, would keep intact the election promises made by three members of the City Council to end the RLC program, but more importantly, allow the APD to keep pace (or maintain a status quo this year) with the population growth and public safety needs of Apopka.
An extra year of red light camera revenue would add approximately $800,000-$900,000 to the general fund, which could then be earmarked to go specifically to hire the four new officers, and toward the APD’s part of restoring the merit pay raises back to 6%. I doubt it would be a popular decision, but it would be a temporary way to fund public safety during a budget tightening process.
Everyone on the City Council has their priorities, but they seem determined as a whole to do what they believe is right for Apopka. It was a difficult decision to both cut the budget AND raise taxes in one fell swoop, but they made those tough decisions, and Apopka is better for it in their estimation.
And if public comments from the 2017 Apopka City Council RLC vote is an indicator of what will happen at Wednesday night’s City Council vote, it won’t be easy to keep the program intact, even for another year. But weigh that with the additional public safety benefit of four additional police officers on the streets of Apopka, and then decide what is best for our community.
Good luck City Council. My prayers will be with you. It’s one of those evenings where I am grateful to be sitting at the media table and not on the dais.
In part three tomorrow: The good, the bad, and the ugly. The debate for and against the red light camera program.