By Antonia Brogna and Jill Ryan
The Suffolk County Legislature will have to wait until November 21 to discuss funding for a bill passed on October 2 that will hire a third party to investigate its controversial red light camera program.
The $250,000 budget for the investigation was tabled on October 3 after Democratic Legislator Kara Hahn of District Five fell ill. The Democrats did not have enough votes to pass the budget, so the matter was postponed.
The red light camera program has been a lightning rod for political debate since its inception in 2010. The debate centers on whether the program is primarily focused on public safety or revenue generation. The purpose of the bill is to clear up these questions, but the debate continues.
If the program is about safety, Democrats say the program’s effectiveness is unclear.
“I want the program to do what it’s supposed to do, which is to reduce accidents,” the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Legislator Sarah Anker of District Six, said.
Overall accidents at camera locations are down six percent since their activation in 2010, but almost half of the 100 camera locations have seen an increase in accidents with injuries, according to the latest accident statistics in the 2015 Red Light Safety annual report. Rear end collisions have also increased by 30 percent, leaving the camera program’s effectiveness in question.
“[But] if the cameras weren’t in place, the accident rates would be even higher,” Democratic Legislator William Lindsay of District Eight said.
The increase in accidents with injuries at many camera locations, however, has Republicans thinking the program should be suspended because it is more about money than safety.
“It just looks like this has turned into not about public safety,” Republican Legislator Kevin McCaffrey of District 14 said. “Everything points to this becoming just about a money grab.”
The program generates around $30 million in yearly revenue from area motorists, according to the 2015 and 2016 Red Light Safety reports from the Suffolk County Traffic and Parking Violations Agency.
For every camera set up, the county has to pay its vendor, Xerox, a fixed monthly fee of $2,132, according to the county’s contract. McCaffrey claims cameras are put in places that generate the most revenue to pay for these monthly fees.
“If it were about safety, we would be putting these cameras wherever we think the most dangerous intersections are, regardless of the revenue,” McCaffrey said.
The over $30 million in revenue the program generates annually is a way for the Democrats to disguise a tax increase, Republican Legislator Robert Trotta of District 13 claims.
“How can you have a program where accidents are increasing dramatically? It’s absurd,” Trotta said, also calling the program a “cash cow.”
For constituents, both safety and money are factors in how they view the program.
The cameras save lives, but it is hard to avoid tickets, constituent Steven Gravely from Deer Park said.
“They need to work on the camera timings,” Gravely said. “By the time you get to the line it flashes, before you get to the line it flashes, you don’t know when you’re going to get a ticket.”
Once the budget for the six-month study is passed, County Executive Steve Bellone will have to sign it into action, which may take up to 30 days, Lindsay said. From there, the Department of Public Works will hire a third party engineering firm to conduct the investigation.