- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
With speed cameras in Charles County catching roughly three times the expected speeders, county officials are dealing with too much of a good thing.
Rather than return a fund balance of more than $186,000 requested by the Charles County Sheriff’s Office to pay for long-needed equipment, the county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to pay for the upgrades with excess revenue from the department’s new speed camera program.
With the cameras catching roughly triple the number of speeders initially projected when the program started last summer, the cost of administering the program and processing the citations has increased as well, assistant sheriff Maj. Joseph “Buddy” Gibson said.
Accordingly, the commissioners voted to increase the program’s current $257,000 budget to $900,000.
They also voted to allocate $186,070 in excess revenue from the program toward the purchase of 20 new patrol radios as well as upgrades to the dashboard cameras of 12 police cruisers and repairs to the intercom system and door motors at the county jail in La Plata.
“But that is not what we asked for,” Gibson said.
The sheriff’s office asked in October that those items be paid for with the $186,000 fund balance the department produced following the last fiscal year, Gibson said.
“For whatever reason, they chose to do this rather than give us the $186,000 we saved last fiscal year,” he said, adding that excess revenue from the speed cameras is supposed to go toward improving traffic safety.
The department rotates its three mobile speed cameras among school zones throughout the county. It plans to add three more cameras this summer.
Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) appeared to believe that the commissioners were considering the department’s request and did not directly object to the vote during their weekly meeting Tuesday.
“This is not the first time that we’ve used the money that we’ve left over from the previous budget,” Coffey said before the vote. “What’s the reason for anyone being a good steward of the money, if at the end of the day it’s just going to be taken from you? This money’s given to us at the beginning of our budget, and we’ve proven, at least I’ve proven over the last six years, that I’m a team player and I’m about making this budget work in these hard, tough economic times. These are things that we need to do and that we’d like to do.”
Coffey expressed indifference regarding any excess revenue generated by the speed cameras.
“Some would convey me as some kind of money monger. I’m trying to run the sheriff’s office. We’re not out to make money. We’re about public safety,” he said. “The money that program generates to a profit, outside of fixing the things that need to be fixed, we don’t care if that money comes back to the county government. It matters not to me.”
“Ironically, we would actually hope it would lose money because that means people are in compliance with stopping at red lights or obeying the speed limit,” chimed in Charles County Chief of Budget David M. Eicholtz.
“There you have it,” Coffey said.
There also isn’t any guarantee that the program will generate enough revenue to pay for the equipment upgrades, Gibson said. The new radios are expected to cost $111,900, while the camera upgrades will cost $20,900.
The jail also would get eight heavy-duty chairs, an $8,000 floor-cleaning machine and a $2,000 toaster to prepare meals for inmates.
Coffey stressed during the meeting that the camera upgrades are crucial.
“That protects us all out there when we have frivolous complaints about what officers said or did, these cameras and the sound mikes,” he said. “They protect us from frivolous lawsuits.”
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) asked the sheriff to explain why the cameras were “so successful.”
“I guess we’re so successful because I just got one myself last week,” Coffey answered. “I guess that’s why.”
In other business, the commissioners held off approving its staff’s recommended school allocations for the first half of 2013 after members of the Charles Board of Education asked to first see how many past allocations were still outstanding.
The allocations are determined based on the number of open seats at county schools and then awarded to developers seeking to build homes.
The Department of Planning and Growth Management recommended that the commissioners approve 2,167 allocations this year, with half of them reserved until July.
The allocations are determined by a formula incorporating each school’s open seats and the county’s ratio of homes-per-student — an elementary school student lives in roughly one of every five Charles County homes, while one in 10 homes houses a middle school student and one in six houses a high-schooler. Developers need one allocation for every house they want to build, said Jason Groth, chief of resource and infrastructure management at PGM.
Though overcrowded schools receive no allocations, the formula allows for development even if the system as a whole is overcrowded.
For instance, the county’s 22 elementary schools as a whole are overcrowded by 418 students, but because nine of them individually have open seats, 387 total allocations have been recommended for 2013. The six high schools are overcrowded by 724 students, but due mostly to 488 open seats at Henry E. Lackey High School and Thomas Stone High School, the county has recommended 631 allocations.
The remaining 1,149 allocations would go to the county’s middle schools, which collectively have room for 450 more students.
But many of those allocations are effectively worthless — even if a particular school has allocations, a developer can’t build unless the elementary, middle and high school serving the area all have open seats, Groth said.
The commissioners decided to wait to approve the recommended allocations until they could fulfill a request from Charles County Board of Education member Jennifer S. Abell to see how many outstanding allocations were currently held by developers.