District asks for overdue camera funds, one town considers restarting program
For three years, three Union County towns operated “red-light cameras” at local intersection and collected fines from drivers photographed running red lights. Under state law, money collected from that program has to be turned over to the school system. Now facing a massive budget shortfall, Union County Public Schools is asking them to pay up.
The money collected by Indian Trail, Stallings and Monroe – a total of $190,373 – has been sitting in town bank accounts since 2007, but the first of the three was transferred when the Stallings town board finally voted to give its camera fine money to the school district.
In August, Union Superintendent Ed Davis sent a letter to all Union municipalities, asking if they participated in the red-light camera program and if they collected fines. Indian Trail, Stallings and Monroe were the only ones that did, though Marshville had not responded to Davis’ letter as of this week.
According to correspondence, Indian Trail collected $34,936, Monroe brought in $139,441 and Stallings gathered $15,995, all of which has been sitting in the bank since each town stopped using the traffic-light cameras.
While the cameras were in operation, anyone caught running a red light was fined $50. The problem was that administrative costs for the program were higher than expected, with the different companies taking $35 out of each ticket. The N.C. Court of Appeals determined in 2006 that the red-light cameras were legal to use only if 90 percent of the funds went to the school system.
“I’m not aware of any municipality still using it because they can’t afford to pay a contractor and pay the schools,” Stallings Town Manager Brian Matthews said. “It’s not feasible.”
During their Monday, Jan. 24 meeting, the Stallings town council members adopted a budget amendment to give the fine money to the school district. Council members said they had no problem turning over the money but regretted ever installing the red-light program.
“It’s definitely a big money-making scam for the red-light-camera companies. So I hate we ever got involved in it,” Stallings Mayor Lynda Paxton said.
Nearby Monroe, meanwhile, is still discussing the issue. The city entered into a contract with Redflex Traffic Systems in December 2002 and turned the cameras on in July 2003. Monroe shut down its cameras on May 28, 2006, not quite three years later.
“The council has taken no action as of yet and is planning to discuss the issue in closed session during an upcoming meeting,” city public information director Pete Hovanec said.
The issue is just another example of ways the school district is searching for funding to plug the expected $31 million shortfall. Overall, the National Conference on State Legislatures estimates North Carolina’s budget deficit at $3.8 billion, approximately 20 percent of the state’s current budget. The Union County school district projects it will have to absorb $14.3 million in cuts from the state, which will mean eliminating 120 teacher and 20 instructional-support positions. The district will decide where to make the cuts.
Additionally, class sizes in most Union County schools would increase, if the state budget is cut as projected. Classes from kindergarten through third grade would increase by one student, while grades four through six would see classes increase by two students. Ninth grade classes, according to the state projections, are supposed to increase by 1.5 students.
Situations like this are why the Town of Indian Trail wants to explore turning its red-light cameras back on.
“We would like to consider turning on the cameras again to assist funding our public schools,” Town Manager Joe Fivas said. “The adequate funding of our public schools is essential to Indian Trail’s overall quality of life.”
Fivas said staff had no plans to present any proposals to restart the program to the council in upcoming meetings.
Indian Trail council members discussed the cameras briefly at their Tuesday, Jan. 25 meeting, but made no decision about giving the $34,000 in fines to the school district. Council members also said they had several questions before even considering restarting the program.
“There are way too many questions for me to comment emphatically either way,” council member Darlene Luther said. “How would the money that is gained through Indian Trail’s potential participation be apportioned to schools? Would it go to Indian Trail’s local schools, or to a general county wide fund?”
In addition, Luther said, the profit split between the town and the agency providing and monitoring the cameras would be quite small for Indian Trail, yet quite lucrative for the agency under the system previously used.
“It certainly does not seem equitable in my opinion,” Luther said. “Let’s face it, the agency doesn’tmake a dime without our participation, so at the very least I would expect that the revenue split would have to be more appealing to even consider it. With that said, at this point in time, I am not in favor (of restarting the program), but again, I don’t have enough information.”
While it’s tempting for towns to help fund the schools, Luther said, there’s something she finds disturbing about taking on a project that would seem to include a ‘Big Brother’ type mentality.
Fivas said board members still had questions for the town attorney, before releasing the funds.