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How much money do red light cameras actually make?

A red light camera keeps an eye on the intersection of Auburn Blvd. and Antelope Road. // CH Sentinel

Sentinel staff report–
Automated red light cameras are commonly accused by motorists of being “revenue generators,” but how much money do they actually generate?

After the Citrus Heights city council voted 4-1 to expand the city’s red light camera program in July, Councilman Bret Daniels accused the program of being a moneymaker, but said he hadn’t seen actual figures on the revenue generated from the tickets.

“I’m not convinced red light cameras make things safer,” Daniels previously told The Sentinel. “I am convinced they make someone, the private company that puts them in, a lot of money.”

According to revenue and expense totals released by the Citrus Heights Police Department last week, Daniels is correct. The majority of red light ticket revenue received by the city goes to pay Redflex Traffic Systems, Inc., the Australia-based company the city contracts with to maintain and operate red light cameras in Citrus Heights.

So how much money is actually being made?
Figures released by CHPD in response to an inquiry from The Sentinel show the city received an average of $639,494 each year from red light violations, from 2011 to 2016. While that’s not the total value of all $481 red light citations that were issued, police Lt. Jason Russo said it is the total the city received on average annually from the courts for red light citations — after state fees, court fees, and other mandated fees were taken out before reaching the City of Citrus Heights.

After all costs of implementing the camera program are accounted for, Lt. Russo said the city’s general fund netted an average of $57,660 per year from the camera program, although figures from the most recent year put the net revenue at $124,600. Asked why 2015-16 revenue from the program was nearly double the five-year average, Russo said factors included a cheaper renegotiated contract with Redflex in 2015, staffing changes, and the addition of new camera locations not present in 2011.

Related: Citrus Heights to add more red light cameras at intersections, but do they work?

Under a “cost neutrality” agreement with Citrus Heights, Redflex does not receive any money until the city covers its own costs in implementing the program — making for easy implementation of the camera program, with no risk to the city. The current contract specifies that the first $8,500 in revenue generated each month goes to the city to cover operational costs, which includes staff time for “evaluation of photos and video to determine violations, issue citations, attend court proceedings, system audits, and training,” according to a July 13 police staff report to the city council.

While red light ticket money received by Citrus Heights from the courts on average has exceeded $600,000 per year, Lt. Russo said that figure only represents a fraction of CHPD’s $21 million budget in fiscal year 2015-16.

But revenue from red light tickets also represents a number three times higher than revenue received from all other traffic citations combined, with red light tickets being the number one citation issued in the city, followed by speeding, cellphone tickets and expired registration.

Russo said red light tickets are the top citation issued in Citrus Heights “because the red light system obviously generates more violations than an officer could sitting there.”

In 2015-16, the department reported receiving $209,746 from all traffic citations, excluding red light tickets, and $19,384 from parking tickets. Contrasted with the department’s $21 million budget, Lt. Russo said those numbers should dispel a common claim that traffic tickets are issued to beef up revenue for the department.

“We don’t write tickets to generate revenue,” he said. “We write tickets to change driver behavior and make our roads safer for everyone.”

So how much money does Redflex make?
According to terms specified in the latest contract, Redflex currently receives $4,562.50 per month for each of the eight existing intersection approaches covered by cameras, an amount totaling over $400,000 per year. The two new intersection approaches that went live on July 28 added on another $6,070 per month each, which will bring the city’s payments to Redflex close to $50,000 per month and more than half-a-million dollars per year.

The contract specifies that actual monthly amounts paid may be slightly lower, if credits are issued due to equipment malfunction or errors.

Document: read the city’s 2015 Redflex contract

Although Redflex enjoys a hefty fee from municipalities employing its red light camera systems, the pay apparently wasn’t enough. Last November, Redflex’s former chief executive officer was sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $2 million in restitution for paying bribes to a city official in Chicago for nearly a decade, according to the United States Department of Justice.

“As the CEO of Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., Karen Finley would funnel cash and other financial benefits to the city official… in exchange for improper assistance in awarding city red-light camera contracts to Redflex,” justice department officials said in a Nov. 10 news release. In a subsequent agreement, the DOJ said Redflex has since “agreed to adopt new policies to ensure that it maintains a rigorous anti-bribery and anti-corruption compliance code, and to install procedures designed to detect and deter violations of such laws.”

Related letters: red light cameras, jaywalking, pedestrian barrier fence

According to the initial 2007 contract with Redflex, a total of up to 20 intersection approaches were authorized to have red light cameras installed in Citrus Heights. So far the city has installed cameras to cover 10 approaches at nine different intersections.

The city’s current red light camera contract is scheduled to expire on Dec. 11, 2018, but the city council can still choose to authorize up to two, two-year extension options remaining on the contract.

Note: The Sentinel submitted a Public Records Act request on July 25 for documents showing the monthly number of red light citations issued in Citrus Heights, but the documents were not made available before this story was published. While the Elk Grove Police Department publishes monthly records of red light citations issued on its website, Citrus Heights does not.

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