Government & Politics
 

As budget season approaches, Cantrell administration offers little on traffic camera plans

Steve Myers / The Lens

At a council committee meeting on Thursday, city chief financial officer could not answer questions about what Mayor LaToya Cantrell has planned for the city’s traffic camera program.

The City Council’s Budget, Audit, and Board of Review committee expected to get an update on Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plans for the future of the city’s traffic cameras on Thursday. That’s not what they got.

The committee received its last update in June from Cantrell’s Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano. On Thursday, the Mayor’s Office sent Chief Financial Officer Norman White.

White didn’t have a comprehensive update on what the mayor — who as a candidate pledged to scale back or even eliminate traffic cameras — is planning. Rather, he provided a broad look at traffic camera ticket revenue. The frustration on the dais was visible.

“Yesterday I was informed that the administration is not prepared to answer any policy questions today,” said committee chair Jared Brossett at the start of the meeting. “We as a body can’t be expected to push things off. We need information and so does the public.”

On the campaign trail, one of Cantrell’s most consistent campaign promises was that she would revisit the city’s traffic camera program, which was significantly expanded under her predecessor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Cantrell called for scrapping the program altogether, or at least suspending it pending the completion of a comprehensive safety study.

But since taking office, her administration has yet to come out with a firm policy proposal for the program. And with city budget season fast approaching, it hasn’t addressed how it would deal with the lost municipal revenue. The cameras are expected to produce between $25 million and $30 million this year, about 25 percent of which goes to the city’s camera contractor.

Last month, the Advocate reported that Cantrell was considering a compromise: keep the cameras in school zones but only operate them during school zone hours, when speed limits are reduced to 20 miles per hour.

New Orleans’ traffic cameras were first installed in 2008. In 2017, when Landrieu launched an expansion of the cameras, The Lens reported that the city had never conducted a safety study on the cameras and could produce no evidence that the program reduced wrecks or fatalities.

Following that report, the Landrieu administration completed a study that concluded that the traffic cameras did, in fact, significantly reduce the rate of car collisions. Cantrell, who at that point had publicly denounced the the cameras, wasn’t convinced.

“While we need to study the analysis further, I do have some concerns about the data,” Cantrell told The Lens at the time. She said she wanted more information on individual cameras. “That way we can determine which cameras, if any, can stay and which ones should be removed.”

But her administration has yet to produce the type of granular analysis that, by those standards, would be necessary to make an informed decision on the future of the cameras. And it seems that it’s a long way off.

On Thursday, when Councilwoman Helena Moreno asked White to list the people currently working on a complete analysis, he couldn’t say.

“I can tell you who is part of looking at the analysis, not who’s doing it,” he said.

White explained to the council that the administration is looking at next year’s proposed departmental expenditures before it digs into the revenue questions.

“From there we will take all of those items, look at them, and figure out what moves forward and what doesn’t,” White said. Only then will the administration start looking at revenues, and White says the traffic camera consideration will be part of that calculation.

But council members stressed that with 2019 budget planning just around the corner, time isn’t infinite. Under city law, the new budget is due by Nov. 1. Landrieu typically presented his budget in October, though he moved the presentation up to July 31 for his final budget last year.

During the meeting, Moreno tried to reconcile White’s incomplete analysis with an August 15 press release from the Cantrell’s office claiming her administration had “completed a comprehensive study of the use of traffic cameras to ensure that they maintain public safety and are used fairly and strategically throughout the city.”

The study she referred to in the press release, according to Cantrell spokesman Beau Tidwell, is one page.  It features two tables, and like White’s Thursday presentation, it shows only revenue figures as broken down by type of camera. It appears that the one-page study contains an error because it shows that most ticket revenue for school zone cameras is generated during non-school-zone hours. White explained on Thursday that tickets issued during school zone hours account for about 71 percent of the estimated $18.1 million in annual revenue from cameras placed in school zones.

The study doesn’t contain any information about safety and doesn’t look at the system on a camera-by-camera basis.

“I have not received what I would consider to be a comprehensive study,” Councilman Joe Giarrusso told The Lens in an interview. “We’re being asked to essentially turn our back on a program that’s going to generate $29.2 million in gross revenue for the city. And we don’t have analysis of the safety implications.”

Justin McDole, a representative from the company that the city contracts to install and operate the cameras—Verra Mobility Corp. (formerly American Traffic Solutions) told councilmembers that the city could face a penalty “upwards of $10 million” if it canceled the five-year camera contract. He added that the company would be happy to work with the city to relocate or remove certain cameras to avoid the penalty.

The budget committee has asked the Cantrell administration to give another presentation on September 27.

White said that at next month’s meeting, he will “present what should have been presented today.”

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About Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.