Spokane City Hall is hoping to use a windfall from school-zone traffic cameras to hire four new neighborhood police officers next year.
Both Mayor David Condon and members of the City Council say the estimated $1 million to be collected in fines this year from speeders near Longfellow and Finch elementary schools is needed to pay for neighborhood resource officers to help battle the city’s property crime problem. That would take about half the school-zone camera revenue, with the rest used for street and sidewalk improvements to make areas around schools safer for students.
City Councilwoman Karen Stratton made the pitch to use the school-zone camera revenue to neighborhood leaders at an assembly earlier this month, emphasizing the officers also could be called upon for traffic patrol. The council also is considering adding two more cameras to school zones around town.
Stratton said the initial response from neighborhood representatives was receptive to the idea of using the school-zone fines for additional officers, as long as those officers would be on-call for traffic enforcement and other school safety calls.
“If we have additional neighborhood resource officers at both COPS shops, traffic control could be part of what they do,” Stratton said. “They might be easier to access, and it would be a win-win.”
The move, however, would mark the first time money from the city’s traffic enforcement cameras is diverted away from traffic safety. When the City Council approved its first law allowing red light cameras in 2007, it stipulated that money would be spent mostly on traffic safety improvements. Some council members at the time said limitations on spending the money would help ensure the focus of the program remained traffic safety, not revenue generation. Police leaders have argued since then that the money would be better used to pay for more police officers.
Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said the four new hires would bring the city’s total number of neighborhood resource officers to eight, and that he would establish informal relationships between them and the schools in the neighborhood they’re assigned.
But some council members acknowledged it may be a tough sell to those hoping the cash raised by the cameras would go exclusively to addressing traffic issues.
“I think there was an assumption that money made on that side would go back into school safety,” City Councilman Mike Fagan said at a meeting earlier this month discussing what to fund with the additional school-zone cash. The city’s original estimate of how much the school-zone cameras would bring in was about half of the amount now expected to be collected through the end of the year.
Council members pointed to a resolution passed in March 2015 controlling the school-zone camera fund that doesn’t specify what the money collected in fines can be used to pay for. The resolution indicates the cash “may be used” on streetlights, speed signs, landscaping and street furniture promoting pedestrian activity, but doesn’t limit the fund to paying for those services.
City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear said she believed as long as the money is spent on making neighborhoods safer, there shouldn’t be an issue.
“We’re using the money under the public safety umbrella,” she said. “It’s perfectly legitimate in my mind.”
City Councilman Breean Beggs said the city has an opportunity to clarify what the money could be spent on in future budget cycles “so everyone understands and there’s no disappointed expectations.” That might mean specifying a fixed dollar amount or a percentage of fines collected for traffic-calming projects, and the rest dedicated to other uses, like hiring neighborhood cops.
Beggs, who said he was “not a fan of red light cameras,” agreed that using the unexpected cash on more neighborhood resource officers is a legitimate use of the fund. He cited the difficulty in raising annual property taxes more than 1 percent – a cap outlined in state law without approval of 60 percent of city voters – as a reason to use any extra revenue to respond to the wishes of constituents, and he said his inbox was full of requests for measures to combat property crime.
Condon has repeatedly said he’s committed to funding four more neighborhood resource officers requested by the City Council. But Tim Dunivant, the city’s budget director, told council members that wouldn’t be possible without the additional cash from the school-zone cameras.
“Without those funds, the four NROs won’t be in the line-item budget,” Dunivant said, referring to the itemized spending plan the mayor is required to present to the City Council for approval in November.
Former City Councilman Mike Allen initially voted against installing red light cameras in Spokane, saying the “piles of cash” created by the program could be used on frivolous expenses. But Allen said in an interview he could support specific use of school-zone fines for property crime prevention.
“I think it makes total sense,” Allen said. “I think it stays with the spirit of attaching those dollars to the neighborhoods. It still benefits the neighborhoods.”
Paul Daneker, a driver who was fined $296 for speeding near Longfellow Elementary, said he supported spending money on safety measures. But he criticized the city for the location of the camera, and for failing to ensure the signage was clear to drivers nearing a school.
“They stuck that thing there just to get some revenue,” Daneker said. He paid his fine, though he pointed to judges in Federal Way, Washington, and elsewhere who had thrown out tickets issued by American Traffic Solutions – the Arizona-based company providing school-zone camera services to Spokane – based on arguments identical to his.
City Council members said their primary goal with the cameras is to stop speeders, not to pile up extra revenue from fines. But Beggs said he believed there was a point the public wouldn’t stomach further cameras.
“You cannot be such a police state on everything that it breaks the relationship between the community and the government,” he said.