Westbank cities satisfied with traffic camera program

Despite the Jefferson Parish Council’s push to cut its ties with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. and the red light camera program the company ran, officials with two West Bank municipalities say they remain satisfied with the service the company provides.

Gretna and Westwego have contracts with Redflex to provide automated speed enforcement cameras in the city. Neither city uses the cameras at red lights, but the speed enforcement cameras have generated millions in revenue.

Redflex has come under fire nationally and locally because of allegations that the company bribed an officials in Chicago and other areas to secure contracts. Jefferson Parish suspended its red light camera program in 2010 when officials learned that Redflex promised a local lobbyist a portion of all fines collected in exchange for help in securing the contract.

Last week, Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts got approval to begin a plan to issue refunds to motorists who were fined under the program because of the national scandal and due to issues with how the rules were enforced. Jefferson Parish has about $20 million in fine revenue in an escrow account, but Redflex has sued the parish to recover its portion of that money.

However, the parish uproar hasn’t been much of an issue in Gretna and Westwego where Redflex’s speed enforcement cameras have been snapping incriminating pictures of motorists since 2009. The speed enforcement cameras are administered by the cities’ police departments, although the citations issued are civil judgments just as in unincorporated Jefferson Parish.

Gretna Deputy Police Chief Anthony Christiana said the Police Department is aware of Redflex’s issues and has contacted the company to discuss some of its concerns. However, there are no plans to immediately terminate the contract or issue refunds, he said. Redflex’s contract with Gretna comes up for renewal later this year, and all options will be examined, he said.

“Right now as it stands, we are looking at Redflex. We’ve seen the things that are happening in other places,” Christiana said.

Westwego Police Chief Dwayne Munch Sr. said he doesn’t plan to ask the Westwego City Council to end the city’s contract with Redflex because Westwego’s deal doesn’t involve any corruption. In comparison, Munch noted that the city still uses crime cameras provided by NetMethods despite the bribery convictions that company’s owner was hit with because of his dealings in New Orleans. If the technology works, and Westwego’s actions are honest, Munch said, he doesn’t see an issue.

“I don’t think it has any effect on us because we do everything by the rules and everything by the book,” Munch said. “I don’t see that the council is going to change anything.”

Gretna and Westwego police have praised the speed enforcement cameras for how they’ve decreased accidents and speeding. In both cities, the majority of residents’ complaints involve speeding, and the cameras allow the departments to address problems without dedicating an officer.

However, it’s undeniable that another huge benefit of the devices is the extra revenue they shunt into each city’s coffers.

Because the citations issued by the cameras are civil judgments, Westwego and Gretna don’t have to split the money collected with a host of state agencies. Instead, they make payments to Redflex and keep the rest. Westwego has collected in excess of $2.1 million, while Gretna has collected more than $10 million since 2009.

In Westwego, half of that money goes to the Police Department’s budget and half goes to discretionary funds the Westwego City Council uses for capital improvements. Westwego police have purchased equipment and vehicles with the money without having to dip into the city’s cash-strapped general fund.

Munch said collections have slumped somewhat since an initial boom, but the city does see spikes in collection.

“Last month was one of the highest months we’ve seen in a long time,” Munch said.

In Gretna, Redflex revenues are used for a variety of items, such as bulletproof vests, renovations and land purchases. While Gretna also experienced a slump, it saw collections explode this past fiscal year with nearly $2 million more collected through fines than initially budgeted.

According to the city’s 2013-14 budget, Gretna expects to have collected about $3.15 million from its traffic cameras from April 2012 through March 2013. The city initially projected that collections would be only $1.22 million, but in 2011-12 collected about $2.16 million.

Christiana said the spike is connected to the addition of a second camera to the city in 2012 and the fact that some drivers seem to have regressed when it comes to speeding.

“We have a second unit in use in some areas that we felt were trouble spots,” Christiana said. “I guess some behaviors are not being curbed.”