State House targets speed cameras

Bill would punish cities by reducing state funding

WARREN — A bill passed in the Ohio House Wednesday will punish local governments for their use of automated speed cameras to issue tickets.

Unlike previous legislation shot down by the Ohio Supreme Court last year, House Bill 410, sponsored by Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, doesn’t seek to directly regulate the cameras. Instead, it reduces state funding to “political subdivisions” by the amount of revenue generated by the cameras.

“We are simply determining that if jurisdictions choose to raise their revenue through issuing civil citations for red light/speed cameras, they need state money to that extent,” Seitz said in a statement. “We are using our unquestionable power over the state budget to reallocate money to a state-run fund for road safety that was being expended for the benefit of those jurisdictions that rely on photo-enforcement revenues.”

The bill, which passed the House with a vote of 65-19, also requires all traffic violations to be filed in municipal courts instead of the mayor’s court or with an administrative hearing officer, requiring local governments to pay the filing fee.

“Current law allows cities to require individuals to go through a city-run administrative hearing process to contest such a ticket. That administrative hearing is not through a court, in front of a judge,” an Ohio House of Representatives Majority Communications Department press release said.

While cities that use speed cameras have called them a measure to increase public safety, opponents have claimed they are little more than speed traps meant to raise money.

A dogged opponent of the speed cameras, Seitz said the bill will test claims that these cameras are about public safety.

Girard Mayor James Melfi, whose city uses speed cameras, said the bill is another attempt by the state government to further reduce already meager funding.

“It is just another way for members of the House to take away more government funding. It is just an excuse,” he said. “These decisions are made by people who were probably never responsible for operating a city, running a city, … It boils down to a lack of understanding what cities go through in today’s economy.”

A 2017 Policy Matters report found that reduction in local government funds and tax changes made by the state have reduced Ohio county and community budgets by $1.2 billion collectively since 2010.

Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Warren, who voted no on the bill, agreed with Melfi.

“Any attempt to take additional local government dollars is wrong,” he said. “The local government funds have been raided from counties, cities, townships for the last seven years. Budgets in those communities have been tripled.”

Melfi added the cameras do generate revenue, but they also help the city function and have improved safety.

“We struggle financially. It is difficult to put more police on the street. Obviously the traffic cameras generate revenue, as all tickets generate revenue,” he said.

A Cochrane Library report reviewed 35 studies on speed camera effectiveness, showing an 8 to 49 percent reduction in all crashes. There is conflicting evidence on the increased safety of speed cameras, however.

With traffic cameras increasing the rate of tickets — Girard has made more than $1 million since implementing cameras — there is also the question of how it will impact citizens carrying the burden of fines.

Traffic tickets are accused of disproportionately impacting the poor because fees are not determined based on income. A 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found Ohio courts were running “debtor prisons,” and in 2016, the Department of Justice issued a reminder to state judges that they could not jail people unable to pay fines or debts.

In addition, in Ohio, unpaid fines can lead to a license suspension. Suspensions also increase with poverty. A 2017 Plain Dealer report found in zip codes where at least 50 percent of residents live below 200 percent of the poverty line, there are 99 annual suspensions for every 1,000 residents.

In comparison, there are 28 suspensions for every 1,000 citizens in zip codes where at least half the population lives above 200 percent of the poverty level.

“There are communities that have really dealt with speed traps, not by speed cameras but local law enforcement,” O’Brien said. “That is why when you have speed cameras, you have to have signs. … So you need to slow down. If you ignore the signs, it is no different than ignoring a speed limit sign.”

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