Saturday, February 28, 2009

Montgomery County Speed Camera Fib#1 : Spending the Money

The media has a tendency to repeat claims about speed cameras which are made by local officials without questioning them. One claim which is repeated every time local officials talk to the press as a way of selling the program is that the money is used “only public safety or pedestrian safety programs.” It turns out that this is, at best, a half-truth and an empty promise.

It is true that there is a legal requirement that money from speed cameras be spent ONLY on public safety,with the wording of HB443 which authorized the cameras stating “Montgomery County shall use the revenues generated from the enforcement of speed limit laws as authorized under this Act solely to increase local expenditures for related public safety purposes, including pedestrian safety programs”. As such this is a requirement which cannot be violated without breaking the law, and is not merely not a casual promise. Legislators have used this requirement to sell the program to the public and assert that it is not a "cash cow". But the reality is that this restriction is meaningless and that money is NOT being spent according to the letter or spirit of the law, and is instead being used for various pet project.

Chevy Chase village decided that purchasing a new Segway, a locker room, and an office for their police chief constituted “public safety improvements”. Minutes from Chevy Chase village show those items were purchased directly from the safe speed fund. These items were described in the minutes of board meetings from November 10, September 8, and July 14, 2008. Other items such as “underground utility conduits” designed to hold electrical and cable TV lines have also been authorized under the fund, which are general operating expenses unrelated to safety. In one Chevy Chase Village meeting, it was shown that the Chevy Chase Village and the Montgomery County governments considered the speed camera funds to be usable for almost any expense when: "Task Force Chair Robert Jones and Mr. Podolsky advised that the County's Senior Financial Officer had opined that portions of most of the Village's potential capital projects could possibly be funded from revenue derived from the Safe Speed program under the parameters of the speed camera legislation." The fact that this might violate the law is apparently irrelevant because the Village government believes they will never be held accountable for that.

This practice was not limited to Chevy Chase Village. The City of Rockville apparently budgeted $1,010,000 out of their speed camera fund on an item labeled "RECREATION AND PARKS PROGRAM AREA". At the county level, the situation is actually worse because there is currently no tracking of speed camera funds at all. In a recent Montgomery County council session, Council President Andrews stated: "There's not a way to specifically account for how the money is being spent. It goes into the General Fund."

Moreover, little if any of the money has been specifically designated for traffic calming devices. For example, Chevy Chase Village has not installed new traffic calming devices on Connecticut Avenue since the installation of the cameras. The failure to reinvest this money in this particular road should be galling to citizens who live outside Chevy Chase Village. Connecticut Avenue is officially designated a “State Highway”, meaning it is maintained by the Maryland State Highway Administration with funds coming from ALL Maryland taxpayers. All of the revenue from the Connecticut Avenue cameras is currently going to the Chevy Chase Village government, not to the benefit of residents in the rest of the county or state whose tax dollars pay for the maintenance of that road. There are only 2000 residents in Chevy Chase Village, and the median income is the median household income is in excess of $200,000, compared with $87,624 for Montgomery County and $68,080 for the state of Maryland (information from Wikipedia). In early 2008 the Connecticut Avenue cameras were bringing in $250,000 per month to the Chevy Chase Village government, whose entire annual operating budget was about $4.5 million.

In other locations where speed cameras are present, EXISTING traffic calming devices have been allowed to fall into disrepair. There are two “your speed” radar indicator signs directly in front of Wooton High School near the two speed cameras at that location, which had been there before the speed cameras were installed, but as of Feb 26, 2009 both of those speed indicator signs were apparently non-functional. Studies have shown speed indicator signs to be highly effective at reducing both speeding and accidents. However when combined with speed cameras they would also tend to reduce camera revenue by reducing the number of inadvertent speeding violations.(ADDENDUM: On 03/05/2009 both of the referenced speed indicator signs were replaced with new ones of a different model. The signs were still non-functional on 3/04. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank our visitors from the "Montgomery County Government" domain for their frequent readership of our website.)

Local governments continue to treat legal requirements as mere guidelines which can be used for PR purposes but ignored whenever desired. Other important restrictions in the law have also been ignored by Montgomery County. Right now many promises are being made as new legislation is being pushed to authorize statewide speed cameras. Given the history of these cameras, a little healthy skepticism by the public might just be in order.

Update 03/11/2010: For Chevy Chase, add $9.722 for a copy machine, as a "public safety improvement".