Sunday, July 20, 2014

Maryland Taxes, Fees on Drivers Greatly Increased in Last Four Years

Costs imposed on motorists by the state of Maryland have been increased greatly over the past four years, with many taxes, tolls, and fees increased 50% or more.

In 2013, the members of the state legislature voted to increase vehicle registration surcharges, and to increase the gas tax increase.  The gas tax increase was set to phase in over several years.  If all increases go into effect the total increase will be 20 cents per gallon by 2016 on top of the 23.5 cent per gallon state gas tax previously in effect (an 86% increase).  However the schedule for the phased in increases ensured that most of the additional tax would be applied after this year's elections.

Additionally, the bill shielded the administration and state legislature from having to vote for future gas tax increases, by causing the gas tax to automatically increase with the consumer price index.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Montgomery County Speed Camera Captain Boasted Of Error Rate "Under Ten Percent"

During the 2013 general assembly, Montgomery County led a concerted taxpayer-funded effort to kill "speed camera reform" legislation which would have ended the practice of paying speed camera contractors a "bounty" based on the number of citations issued, and which would have required speed camera citations to provide secondary evidence of speed to help identify errors.  As part of the campaign to kill this legislation, the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program, Captain Tom Didone, wrote in an email to a state Senator that "Our current error rate by our vendor is under 10%".

Captain Didone, Director of Montgomery County Police Traffic Division, sent the statement on March 20th to the personal email of Senator Madaleno (D, Montgomery County).  The email was composed after he was asked by Verna Price of the Montgomery County Office of Inter-Government Relations a question pertaining to Senate Bill 207, a credible speed camera reform bill sponsored by Senator James Brochin (D, Baltimore County).

"Does the flat fee rate result in a higher error rate?", prompted Price.
Didone responded: "The short answer is yes, that is our belief and fear what will happen.  Our current rate by our vendor is under 10%.  Without proper incentive or management, we could expect the potential error rates to be much higher."
Complete Email.... these statements are not "taken out of context"
Didone argued that paying per ticket gave the county leverage against the contractor .  In the email, he dismissed the notion that a flat fee contract might include specific incentives to maximize accuracy  "Contract provisions can be added but this often involves a legal process in which the vendors rarely get held accountable."

 "[They] only get paid to produce quality citations" wrote Tom Didone,"this can achieve an accuracy rate in the 90% range."

Senate Bill 207 was introduced in response to systematic speed measurement errors discovered in Baltimore City, where the speed camera program has been shut down since April of 2013 due to the discovery that a limited number of cameras had error rates of five percent. Legislation was also prompted by a statement from Governor O'Malley that contracts based on the number of tickets did not comply with the intent of state law.  Baltimore City previously ran its speed camera program under a per-ticket fee arrangement with speed camera contractor Xerox Corporation, the same contractor currently employed by Montgomery County.  An investigation by the Baltimore Sun forced Xerox Corporation to admit that 5% of the citations at some Baltimore City locations were in fact due to errors, and a secret city audit leaked in 2014 confirmed high error rates in the city across the board. Baltimore paid their contractor based on the number of citations, under terms similar to Montgomery County's contract.

"The Bottom line is this.  The vendors are a for profit business.  The leased or flat camera fee removes their incentive to always produce quality photographs or citations" wrote Didone.

An existing provision of state law states "If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of a local jurisdiction, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.".  However this rule has been effectively nullified by local governments who, following the advice of the Office of Attorney General Doug Gansler, do not use the word "operate" in their contracts to describe what the contractors does.  Governor O'Malley stated in December 2012 that "The law says you're not supposed to charge by volume. I don't think we should charge by volume, If any county is, they need to change their program."

Nevertheless, Montgomery County continued to actively oppose changing the law to require local governments to meet the statue's original intent, at taxpayer expense.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Speed Limit on US-1 in College Park Lowered, Speed Camera Enforcement to Increase

College Park officials voted unanimously to increase speed camera enforcement to run 24/7, as the SHA announced that the speed limit on US-Route 1 withing College Park will be decreased from 30mph to 25mph.  The city will be looking at the possibility of adding additional cameras sites on US-1 as well.

City officials state that the change was prompted by three recent pedestrian traffic fatalities, all of which were alcohol related.  College Park has had speed cameras in place since 2010, including cameras located on US-1 very near where the fatalities took place, as well as several other locations in the city.

College park brought in over $3,600,000 worth of speed camera fines in FY2011 (out of a total city budget of $16.3 million).  However revenues from the cameras had declined substantially since then to an estimated $1.243 million in FY14.  The city's FY15 budget calls for this amount to increase to $1,600,000 in FY2015.