Amendment may jeopardize speed cameras



ATLANTA - The Senate has cleared the way for final passage of a Gwinnett County legislator's bill that would allow police agencies to install speed detection cameras in school zones.

But the legislation's fate - and even the current use of red-light cameras in Gwinnett intersections - has been called into question by an amendment requiring that the money raised from fines go to a fund benefiting brain and spinal injury research.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Melvin Everson, R-Snellville, would allow police agencies to place the cameras in school zones and issue tickets through the mail to violators photographed driving at least 6 mph over the posted speed limit.

Offenders could be fined up to $70, the same penalty that is imposed on drivers caught by red-light cameras.

"Everyone complains that people are going crazy on the roads,'' Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, told his Senate colleagues Tuesday night shortly before they passed the bill. "We need to try to slow people down.''

Under the version of the bill approved by the Senate Transportation Committee, the money raised through fines was to go to the city or county that installs a speed camera, to be used for "traffic enforcement and traffic accident prevention.''

But on Tuesday, a group of Republican senators amended the legislation to steer the proceeds instead to the state's Brain and Spinal Injury Trust Fund.

The amendment's sponsors said they opposed speed cameras as unwarranted government intrusion on motorists and a scheme by localities to make money.

"This is about revenue,'' said Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta. "They're only going to put them in places where they can make a lot of money.''

The amended version of the bill also impacts red-light camera programs, which have been growing in popularity across the state. In the past year, cameras have been added in Gwinnett at nine intersections in five jurisdictions.

While the cameras have generated more than $2 million countywide, officials said the revenue doesn't fully fund police functions and, if the money were taken away, the governments wouldn't be able to afford leasing the cameras.

"How are we supposed to enforce laws safely and keep our taxes low?'' Snellville Mayor Jerry Oberholtzer said.

While he's been pushing a bill to allow the cameras to enforce speeding laws for two years, Oberholtzer said he'd rather see the bill die for lack of action than for the red-light program to be affected.

"It's very disheartening,'' he said of the legislative scuffle. "If you don't want us to enforce (traffic laws), then take the laws off the books. These people are violating the law. Using the technology makes it better.''

City Manager Jeff Timler said Snellville's revenues from cameras at three major intersections go to paying back a $400,000 contract to lease the equipment and to support added services, such as an extra day in court and the time it takes an officer to certify the tickets.

A Gwinnett Daily Post study published earlier this month revealed that the number of tickets issued by cameras has decreased each month, implying that the cameras are successful at deterring light-running.

Gwinnett County Chairman Charles Bannister said the move would only shift the burden of paying for the equipment to the taxpayers.

The amendment "probably sounds good and benevolent," he said. "But there would be no incentive for us to pay for it. It would cause some grief in some respects."

Everson said he would work today to convince his House colleagues to yank the Senate amendment out of the bill.

"This is not a revenue-generating mechanism,'' he said. "These funds will be dedicated solely for safety programs and accident prevention.''