Editorial: Speed cameras poor substitute for local taxes

$1.8 million.

That’s how much money Girard (Ohio) collected last year in fines generated from motorists caught on camera speeding in the city — the same year that COVID-19 was hitting hard the wages and economy of motorists and residents.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of dollars also generated from these speed camera fines were sent last year to the private out-of-state company that provides the cameras to the city.

Now Girard officials are in the process of approving just how they will spend all this cash that came out of the pockets of unsuspecting motorists, mostly caught in the areas of State Street and on Interstate 80.

We believe these motorists lose some due process when they don’t get the fair warning of blinking lights and a siren behind them or at least an opportunity to defend themselves to the police officer making a traffic stop. In most cases, it’s fair to say the motorists probably didn’t even have an inkling that they were being caught on camera because the officers holding the cameras usually are hidden away, to prevent each motorist from lifting his or her foot off the gas pedal.

The tickets show up in their mailboxes a couple weeks later.

We consistently have heard from municipal and township leaders in many local communities using the cameras that these tools were used solely for public safety and welfare. They argued it would slow motorists and make streets safer.

We beg to differ. Police officers hiding on bridge overpasses or atop highway entrance ramps out of view cause no one to slow down and drive safer.

Police officers in Howland, which ended its speed camera program months ago, frequently parked their cruisers near the ramps between East Market Street and state Route 82 where officers sat with their speed cameras. Since ending speed camera use, officers rarely can be seen parked in that area, despite their concerns for motorists’ safety.

This is not to mention the slippery slope of allowing police to increase their focus on revenue generation rather than on other community policing efforts.

This month Girard council gave first reading to how it will disperse the $1.8 million generated from the speed camera civil penalties. Officials there intend to place 58 percent in the city’s general fund; 18 percent in the street construction fund; 14 percent for the recreation fund; and 5 percent each for capital improvements and capital improvements safety.

It sounds to us like Girard officials are treating these traffic fines as an operating or capital improvement tax. The city even has adjusted the rates of these fines, creating a tiered system to ensure the money keeps rolling in at a steady pace.

If you’re caught speeding on the cameras in Girard, you can expect to pay $150 for speeding in a construction zone; $125 for 10 to 15 mph over the speed limit; $135 for 16 to 25 mph over the limit; and $150 for 26 or more mph over.

Ironically, at the same meeting when the speed camera funds were discussed, council also touched on the city’s use of COVID-19 relief funds coming from taxpayers on a federal level.

While the city was generating $1.8 million with speed camera use during last year’s pandemic, many residents and motorists were struggling with unemployment and a poor economy.

Traffic fines never should be treated as a tax to keep a city afloat. Ohio law generally gives residents the ability to decide how much money they believe their local government should have to operate their government by giving constituents an opportunity to cast a ballot on local tax levies.

Some local governments, however, have removed that right and responsibility from voters, apparently deciding traffic cameras are an easier way to generate revenue without ever requiring voter input.

We’ve said it many times before.

Policing for profit is just wrong.

— Youngstown Vindicator, June 25