Puyallup to share data on red-light cameras

kari.plog@thenewstribune.comApril 1, 2014 

Puyallup officials want to better inform residents how the city spends money generated by its red-light cameras, a process that hasn’t been tracked in detail since the cameras were installed about six years ago.

The Puyallup City Council discussed the issue last week and requested that staff more clearly report in the annual budget where those funds go.

Councilman Tom Swanson, who proposed the change, said the top complaint he gets from people relates to how they think red-light ticket revenue is used. Many residents are skeptical that it’s spent on public safety, he said; they fear it’s a way to beef up general city revenue.

“This is not complicated,” Swanson said at a council study session. “This would be very simple for us to demonstrate where we are spending $700,000.”

Finance director Cliff Craig told The News Tribune that the red-light camera money “helps offset the cost of police services.” But he said it is currently an unrestricted revenue source, meaning it flows into the general fund and the city doesn’t track how it’s spent in detail.

“There isn’t any need to do that kind of accounting when the monies aren’t restricted,” he said. “That would be doing a lot of busy work for nothing.”

Puyallup has used red-light cameras since 2008. They are at six intersections.

The council last week was given the revenue totals for the most recent years.

More than $637,000 was generated in 2012, a number that increased to more than $1 million in 2013. City Manager Bill McDonald said the spike was caused by reactivating a camera that had been offline due to road construction.

The city estimates it will collect at least $717,000 with the cameras this year, but McDonald said the final totals likely will be higher, since the city’s budget policy requires a conservative approach in estimating revenues.

Craig said the camera revenues allow the city to allocate more resources to the Police Department than it could otherwise.

In 2007, the year before cameras were installed, the police budget was $13,824,253. This year’s police budget is $16,515,044.

Craig said the money generated by red-light tickets reduces the city’s dependence on general tax revenue to pay for police. “If we didn’t have that revenue, we would have to reduce something” else in the city’s budget.

Craig said the discussion at the March 25 meeting emphasized a need for clarity, not changing how money is spent.

“The council seems to have the general impression that we are, in fact, spending enough money on public safety programs,” he said. “We just need to show that more clearly in the budget.”

The initial proposal ahead of the meeting offered council members the option to restrict red-light camera funds for public safety.

But City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto said it would be “meaningless” to do that since the city already decides annually during the budget process how funds will be spent.

“You are earmarking every year how money is to be spent,” Yamamoto said at the meeting. “You could never permanently earmark funds in local government.”

Councilman Steve Vermillion stressed that point while still advocating for more transparent reporting. He suggested a possible mailer to residents breaking down how money is spent each year.

Fellow council member Heather Shadko said red-light cameras are a polarizing issue, but added that clear accounting could help ease frustrations.

“You either love them or hate them,” she said of the cameras. “There’s really no middle ground.”

BY THE NUMBERS

RED-LIGHT CAMERA VIOLATIONS

2011: 11,974

2012: 13,829

2013: 18,700*

RED-LIGHT CAMERA NET INCOME

2011: $521,225

2012: $637,077

2013: $1,025,954

2014: $717,141**

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682 kari.plog@thenewstribune.com @KariPlog * Estimated ** Projected, based on conservative estimates. Source: Finance director Cliff Craig and cityofpuyallup.org

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