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

City Council authorizes use of school zone camera money for cops, traffic calming

A Finch Elementary School student heads for the crosswalk past the 20 MPH speed sign on Northwest Boulevard, Oct. 6, 2016. Drivers headed east are subject to a fine if caught by a speed zone camera. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Fines paid by school zone speeders will be split to pay for neighborhood cops and sidewalk improvements through 2018, and the city will explore expanding enforcement cameras next year.

By a 6-1 vote, the council approved a resolution approving installation of school zone cameras at Stevens Elementary in the Chief Garry neighborhood and Lincoln Heights Elementary on the South Hill by Sept. 1, pending the outcome of a report on the effectiveness of cameras at their two existing locations.

The city estimated earlier this fall that it would collect $1 million in fines this year from the speed zone cameras. The windfall, in part, led city officials to rethink the city’s earlier rules about how to spend fines collected from traffic cameras. Previously, the city only spent fines from violations caught by cameras on traffic safety projects.

The resolution finalizes the decision to split the collected fines through 2018 between salaries for four resource officers and construction projects designed to slow traffic and allow safe walking routes to schools for students.

The resolution only governs the use of the fund for the next two years, said City Councilman Breean Beggs. After that, the city will have to decide permanent uses for the fines collected.

“We’ve kind of pushed off the deeper discussion, of how they’re going to be spent” after 2018, he said.

Councilwoman Amber Waldref, the lone vote against the proposal, said the city needed more time to explore whether the cameras were effective before expanding their use. The cameras were installed in November 2015, and the city didn’t begin issuing tickets for violations until January.

“When we established the pilot program, the goal was to come back, within a year and look at the data to see if we actually changed the speeds, if we actually impacted the behavior,” Waldref said. “I think it’s premature. I think we need to look at the data.”

Beggs, who authored the resolution, said he spoke with Mark Sterk, the head of safety for Spokane Public Schools, who identified those two schools as the priorities for new cameras. Beggs said the resolution was necessary to ensure the city did not delay implementation of a successful program.

“I don’t want to get to Sept. 1 and say, ‘Boy, it hasn’t been a priority, and we’re not going to go with it,’ if all the data says that we should,” Beggs said.

Beggs’ proposal authorizes shifting some of the money from the school zone camera fund to pay for things other than construction. A previous resolution, adopted in 2015, said the revenue “may be spent” on street improvements, but didn’t prohibit other uses.

Waldref and Councilman Mike Fagan cited some confusion between the city and the school district about the programming of the cameras, which had been operating at Longfellow and Finch elementary school speed zones during the wrong hours on days when students were released early from classes. Fagan said the school district needed to work more closely with the city to avoid similar errors.

“If there is not clear, concise, timely communication between the school district and the city of Spokane, those particular lights are not going to get programmed to minimize the impact of erroneous tickets,” Fagan said.

Using the money collected from speeders to fund the four new officers, who will split time between improving safety at school and addressing property crime in surrounding neighborhoods, was already agreed to in the 2017 budget approved by the City Council last month. The vote Monday night confirmed that the salaries of those officers, at a cost of up to $550,000, would also come out of the school zone camera fund in 2018.

A little less than $250,000 from the fund will be spent next year on traffic safety projects. About $221,000 of the fund will be spent on those projects in 2018. Fines also will fund half the salary of a municipal court administrator to process the traffic tickets, at a cost of $62,500. Anything left over would be spent on street and sidewalk construction.