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Cities With Traffic Cameras Fighting Budget Lines That Take Away Some State Funding

One provision of the state budget proposal that's likely to stay in the final version would deduct state money from cities like Columbus that are still using traffic enforcement camera systems. 

Officials in many of those cities are opposed to the provision. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler reports. 

Traffic cameras are a topic that revs up contentious debate for Republicans and Democrats.  But last year, camera opponents prevailed and this March, a law took effect requiring cities to station police officers with cameras to observe violations. Cities say those cameras are important safety tools, and they sued. So far Akron, Dayton and Toledo have gotten court orders allowing them to at least temporarily keep their camera programs going through the legal battle. That was a problem for Sen. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati), known as possibly the legislature’s most outspoken critic of these camera programs. Seitz says he wrote an amendment to the budget that allows for a city’s funding to be reduced by the amount of revenue they bring in from traffic and red-light cameras. 

“They are allowed to run their cameras 24/7 at every intersection in town. They can do that to their hearts’ content,” Seitz said. “Their only penalty will be that their local government funds will be adjusted, and they shouldn’t object to that because, after all, they’ve told us for two years it’s not about the money. So it won’t be about the money.”

But cities say they’re fighting that provision in the budget because it’s not about the money. Democratic Toledo Mayor Paula Hicks Hudson said, “It’s not just about the red light cameras. It’s about this assault on the separation of government and our need for the cities to be able to exercise their due process rights.”

Nan Whaley is the mayor of Dayton, and she agrees – it’s about the principle of home rule for cities. “We have a right as cities to go to the court, and when the court says something is unconstitutional, the court says it’s unconstitutional,” Whaley said. “Now they’ve decided to be punitive, and when you go down that road regardless of the issue, you’re really going down a way for people not to be able to self-govern, and that’s a big concern not only to cities that have these cameras, but cities that don’t as well.”

But Seitz says cities are free to operate their cameras, as long as they follow the law. They’ll just get less money from the state, which has demonstrated by passing the law that it disapproves of the cameras. Seitz makes an analogy comparing the state to a parent of a rebellious kid – a city. “When a child turns 18, his parents can no longer tell the child what to do. But Mom and Dad sure don’t have to give the kid an allowance to do those things that Mom and Dad thinks are inappropriate,” Seitz said. “So if you want to be 18 and do what you want, be my guest – we’re simply not going to pay for it.”

And Seitz says there’s precedent for this, set in 1998 with the passage of a provision in a budget-correction law allowing the state to deduct money to cities that tax electric, gas and telephone companies. That came after the Ohio Supreme Court had ruled that cities could tax the profits of those businesses. And that’s where all this will likely end up – the state’s highest court. But in the meantime, cities are urging lawmakers to reconsider withholding money from cities using traffic cameras, or there could be more legal and financial trouble ahead for everyone. Former Ohio Supreme Court justice Andrew Douglas argued for Toledo before the Senate Finance Committee. “If the city’s funds are diverted and we win, and all the cities win, they have to go someplace to get it,” Douglas said. “And we’d be looking, I’m sure, at the people who took it away, which is what my point is – that we then have both the executive, the legislative and the judicial all at each other’s throats. And our citizens expect better than that of us.”

But Seitz says he still doubts the stated goals of officials in cities with cameras. “We are smoking them out and making them tell the truth about what this is really all about. And it is all about the money.”

The money involved is potentially significant. Traffic cameras yielded $16 million across the state in 2012 and that total was rising till the law passed earlier this year. Last year cameras brought in more than $2 million in Toledo, $1.7 million for Dayton and $1.2 million for Akron.

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