Proceed with caution: Destin to weigh costs, benefits of traffic light cameras

DESTIN — After pushing hard a month ago for the city to consider installing cameras at traffic signals, Councilman Larry Hines may be rethinking his request after last week’s City Council meeting.

“In my heart I think that I favor this, but I think we need more information,” Hines said.

The council voted 6-1 to collect data from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office on the number of accidents and traffic violations in Destin before deciding on the cameras.

The city’s staff recently met with representatives from American Traffic Solutions and B&W Sensors, both vendors of traffic infraction detection systems, to gather information and present the council with the pros and cons of the systems.

Public Services Director Steven Schmidt told council members that installation costs for a system that would comply with Florida Department of Transportation requirements would range from $75,000 to $110,000 per directional installation. The city also would have to enter into a five-year lease agreement with the vendor at a cost of $4,500 to $4,700 a month.

So, for every east-west traffic signal the city wanted to place a camera, the minimum cost would be $9,000 a month, in addition to the installation costs for each direction.

Councilman Larry Williges said it would take quite a few infractions to break even.

“The city would have to have 60-plus violators just to make back the $4,500 … for the $4,700 you need 62-plus violators to break even,” he said. “This could cost us quite a bit of money for the five-year period, close to $281,000 for the lease agreement.”

Of the $158 fine collected, the city would receive $75, with the remaining funds sent to the state Department of Revenue. The city also would be responsible for hiring or training someone to administer the program, verify the infractions and issue notices of violation to motorists.

“You don’t have to do it with the sheriff’s department or the county,” Schmidt said.

City Manager Greg Kisela said there are two main issues: red light detection and speed detection provisions in state law.

“The courts are continuing to refine these enforcement issues,” he said of the legal battle over the validity and enforcement of traffic cameras. “The courts have just not supported a haphazard application of the law.”

Councilman Jim Bagby, who cast the lone “no” vote, said the cameras could cause more problems than they solve.

“I wouldn’t say that we are ready for this,” he said. “The cost is prohibitive and I don’t think we need them.”

Pete Blome, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Okaloosa County, said his branch of nearly 290 members is aligned with the Libertarian Party of Florida in its opposition to traffic signal cameras.

He said later that the Libertarians would protest their installation. “Absolutely. As best we can.”

“The whole purpose of a red light camera system is not safety,” Blome said. “That could be just as well served by making yellow lights longer. The purpose of a red light system is to make money for the people who have those systems and to try and get fines into a county or a town that is trying to increase its revenue because they are too unwilling to make the hard decisions about cutting their budgets. They want to squeeze the little guy to get the funds.”Kisela said that generating revenue is not necessarily the plan.

“The providers of this equipment predicted it would generate revenue, but we are a little reluctant to commit to that,” he said.

City officials will wait for the traffic data from the Sheriff’s Office.

“I’d rather see the results from the statistics,” Councilman Tom Weidenhamer said. “I want to see whether or not we have a problem.”