A steady stream of cars and trucks passes through Fife every day on the way to destinations such as warehouses, car dealerships and the Port of Tacoma.
Some drivers get tickets without ever meeting a police officer. The city of 9,200 people has had red-light cameras since 2008, one of seven cities in Pierce and south King counties to use them.
Fife officials say red-light cameras have made streets safer, leading to a 30 percent drop in collisions at key intersections.
They’ve also made millions for city coffers. Fife is the smallest local city with a photo-enforcement program and has fewer cameras than all but one city, but its program generates the most gross revenue by far, according to a News Tribune analysis.
Unlike some cities, Fife has placed fairly tight limits on how the money can be spent. The revenues that remain after operation costs are covered could go only to projects that improve pedestrian safety, such as school zone signs and pedestrian overpasses.
Some Fife leaders have pointed to those restrictions in defending the city against a common criticism of red-light cameras – that they’re unfettered cash cows for municipalities.
But in the midst of another tight budget cycle, the City Council Tuesday approved broadening the limits to include paying for some traffic enforcement by police officers.
Mayor Rob Cerqui called it a “minor tweak;” he said it’s consistent with the council’s original intent to spend surplus photo-enforcement money on safety, not general government.
“To me, it would be a refinement of the program, but we still would be providing pedestrian safety,” he said in an interview.
But Councilman Glenn Hull, who cast the sole no vote, said he worries about precedent. Council members who set the original restrictions “had concerns about using the red-light camera enforcement (money) for general fund expenses,” he said. “I think it’s a slippery slope.”
The change essentially will shift the cost of one full-time police officer – on average about $110,000 – from the general fund to the photo-enforcement fund. Fife’s general fund has taken a hit in the recession, with an especially steep decline in city sales tax revenue, which has fallen from $8 million about six years ago to an estimated $4.5 million this year.
The photo enforcement fund has had its ups and downs, too, but is still lucrative for the city. Last year, the cameras generated about $2.9 million before operating costs were taken out.
That was more gross revenue than any other local photo enforcement program, according to financial data collected by The News Tribune.
Tacoma, home to about 200,000 people, was next with $1.64 million. Federal Way, which has about 91,000 residents, was third with $1.57 million.
Both cities have more cameras than Fife. They use red-light and school zone cameras, and Tacoma also has a speed camera. Fife uses only red-light cameras.
Fife leaders say their city’s location as a busy regional traffic hub has much to do with its infraction count. It is bisected by Interstate 5, and many drivers are making the transition to local roads from the higher-speed freeway.
Its population also more than doubles during the day, officials have said.
“You don’t have to know the area that well to know Fife has incredible traffic impacts from forces outside of the city,” City Manager Dave Zabell said.
The cameras have plenty of critics.
Sabrina Asress, 35, of Federal Way, who passed through Fife on a recent morning, said she feels cities use the cameras as revenue generators. She said she’s a careful driver and was unfairly fined for a right turn on red at a photo-enforced intersection in Fife – a complaint others also have made.
“They’re horrible,” Asress said of the cameras.
Erin Torres, 29, who works at a gas station at 54th Avenue East and Pacific Highway East, said she hears complaints about photo enforcement there daily.
Some people cut through the gas station to avoid the intersection entirely, she said.
John Jones, 60, of Edgewood, said he drives through Fife frequently and doesn’t have a problem with the cameras. They’re a way to provide some traffic enforcement without tying up too much police officer time, he said.
City leaders say red-light camera revenue is starting to drop, which shows the program is working.
Gross revenue in 2011 was down nearly 21 percent from the year before. This year, it’s projected to be down another 19 percent, with an additional drop forecast in 2013.
“Our ultimate goal is to get no revenue (from the cameras),” Zabell said. “The ultimate goal is that people are stopping safety at intersections and we won’t need the program.”