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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Red-light money left alone

Council votes to keep funds going to traffic safety

Money from red-light camera tickets still must be used only on traffic safety projects.

The Spokane City Council on Monday voted 4-1 to reject a proposal that would have removed restrictions on how red-light revenue is spent.

The decision means the city remains out of compliance with the law because last year the council approved spending $20,000 of camera revenues to fight graffiti and $50,000 on the city’s volunteer policing program, Community Oriented Policing Services.

When the City Council approved the use of red-light cameras in 2007 it passed a law requiring that any revenue above the costs associated with the cameras be spent only on traffic safety projects. Since then, many city leaders have pointed at the funding requirement as proof that the program was focused on traffic safety, not producing revenue to help the city balance its budget.

But since the program’s inception there’s been pressure on the council to use the revenue on other programs, and for 2014 the council for the first time agreed to divert money away from traffic safety – a move that some council members say they now regret.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref said the council intended to improve the COPS budget with red-light money. Instead, the Police Department cut a nearly equal amount from the COPS program at the same time. She was fine with the funding compromise that allowed spending of red-light money beyond traffic safety, but the way the COPS budget was handled changed her mind, she said.

“I would have been happy to stick to that if they hadn’t pulled the rug out from us,” she said.

Council members assured officials from COPS who testified Monday night that they will find $50,000 elsewhere in the city budget to prevent the volunteer program from facing cuts. Council members said they have learned that administrators believe they no longer need $20,000 of red-light camera money to start a new anti-graffiti program.

Police Chief Frank Straub said in an interview Monday that the Police Department would find money from its existing budget to prevent cuts to COPS. But Straub’s plan to find money within the department’s budget wasn’t known by the council Monday night.

Some council members suggested that the city could help maintain funding for COPS by starting to issue speeding tickets in school zones by implementing a speed camera program.

The council also decided last year to spend red-light camera money to hire one traffic police officer. Council members said Monday that they likely will rewrite the law to make sure it can use red-light money for traffic officers.

Last year, the city raised $1.5 million in fines from red-light camera tickets. Of that, the city paid $631,000 to American Traffic Solutions, the Arizona company that runs the program. The rest was the city’s to keep. About $164,000 was used to pay the salary and benefits of the police officer who runs the program, and for street and other costs associated with the program. The rest, nearly $700,000, was earmarked for traffic safety projects.