Florida Public Employees
January 14, 2014
By: Elaine De Valle, LADRA – Political Cortadito
Smile as you go under that yellow traffic light: There are many more red light cameras coming soon to 150 intersections near you.
Yes, it appears that red light cameras — which have been limited to municipal streets — are headed to intersections in unincorporated Miami-Dade, after all. Or finally.
This has been a long time coming, since county commissioners approved the program several years ago, sponsored at that time by then-Chairman Joe Martinez and co-sponsored by today’s Chair Rebeca Sosa. Martinez has mind and on his last meeting Nov. 8, 2012, he tried to get rid of it but the motion failed.
A request for proposals finally went out last month, three days after the commission approved an ordinance that established a hearing process for red light camera violations under new state laws that passed last year. The deadline is Jan. 24, when the proposals for the multimillion dollar contract will be opened at 2 p.m.
We can expect bids from the same two firms as always — American Traffic Solutions and Affiliated Computer Systems, heretofore known as ATS and ACS — which are the only two companies that do business in Miami-Dade, as well as other companies that work in other parts of the state and the nation.
According to one source, five companies showed up to the pre-bid conference with county procurement people: ATS and ACS, as well as Redflex, Sensys and Gatao.
And if history is any indicator, we can also expect much meddling from political insiders and a bid protest at the end of the process. The contracts that have been won at cities have been hard fought. And this is for 150 intersections — possibly expanded to 200 — in unincorporated Miami-Dade, where there are hundreds of “dangerous” corners to choose from. The cameras will be installed in phases, 50 intersections at a time (multiple cameras per intersection), and the county reserves the right to remove any at its discretion, according to the RFP.
It is a very coveted chunk of change.
“This will be huge,” said one industry insider. “This will be something everybody has been trying to get for a long time.”
And Ladra is willing to bet that this RFP is fast tracked. It may go back to commissioners as early as the first next meeting after Jan. 24.
That’s why the Miami-Dade Police Department is already recruiting officers for a special “red light camera enforcement squad” who will “review and certify images captured by the automated red light camera enforcement system, approve or disapprove violations, [and] prepare monthly reports.” That’s the job description according to a memo sent Jan. 2 by Special Patrol Bureau Major Thomas Hanlon to officers who may want to apply for an “eligibility list” (in the photo above).
Deadline for applicants is Jan. 17, one week before the deadline for the bids.
So what changed? What brought on this spate of activity on the red light camera front after months of dormancy?
Well, for one thing, the county may have been waiting for changes in the law. Last year, the legislature passed a bill that clarified an issue with right hand turns at red lights — one of the major causes for appeals — and also changed the rules to make it easier for violators to plea their case in a hearing. Martinez was also losing faith already and, as chairman then, he blocked any further action on it.
Another thing: Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez‘s son no longer works as a lobbyist for ATS, which is the main game in town with all 20 or so of the city contracts in the county, except for half of Miami Beach. The mayor — who got a lot of grief about his “lobbyist son” — correctly recused himself from any vote or discussion related to red light cameras when he was a commissioner, even though his spittin’ image really only lobbied for ATS at the cities. But then he was in the midst of a re-election campaign. Not a good time to start putting red light cameras at 150 of the intersections voters use most.
It may also be politically safer to go there now, since CJ Gimenez left Becker Poliakoff about a year ago and now works for Freddy Balsera — who, as far as we know, has nothing to do with the red light camera cottage industry. Yet.
Who does? Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and lobbyist Armando Gutierrez still represent ATS at the county level. At one time, the Arizona-based company had 24 lobbyists in Tallahassee and working on cities throughout the state, including Ron Book and former Miami-Dade Commissioner Larry Hawkins, who was embroiled in an office sexual harassment scandal and subsequently taken out of office by former Commissioner Katy Sorenson. Also involved is Hector Ortiz, a contractor and serial campaign contributor who was once banned from getting county contracts because of suspected graft but is now the sole installer for ATS cameras. Lobbyists Brian May and Steve Marin (who is also a campaign consultant for candidates) represent the No. 2 firm in town, ACS, a division of Xerox that has the cameras in half of Miami Beach.
Make no mistake about it: Red light cameras are big business.
The Florida Department of Revenue reported that red light camera citations generated more than $62 million in revenue for the state between June of 2012 and last June. The state gets $83 of the $158 fine. Of that, $70 goes to the general fund while trauma centers like Jackson Memorial Hospital get $10, and the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis gets $3. The remaining $75 goes to the municipality, which has to pay the vendor — either ATS or ACS around here — for the costs of installing the equipment, which can cost between $200,000 and $500,000 per intersection. You do the math.
Many city officials have recently admitted that the red light cameras are not the financial windfall they were expecting — for them. Because so many citations are challenged and dismissed — some statistics quoted to me are up to half — and appeals take a long time, cities might not be generating the kind of kaching they projected. Additionally, if the red light camera programs have the effect that proponents (read: industry insiders) desire — that is, the modified behavior of drivers who slow down at yellows rather than speed up — then there are going to be fewer violations as the trend ages. Proponents do say that there is a steady number that can be projected.
Those figures vary and the jury is still out. The formula becomes even more complicated when municipal governments take on costs for establishing a hearing process, as the county did Dec. 3. Even Gimenez’s office admitted that in the memo to commissioners for the meeting.
“The cost of providing local hearings cannot be fully determined at this time,” Gimenez’s memo states. “Should the cost exceed the $150 charge that this ordinance provides for, the cost would either have to be absorbed in the budget by reducing other services or an amendment to this provision could be approved to fully recover to the county’s cost, to the extent that permitted by the state statute.”
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