Thursday, February 24, 2005

The District’s latest traffic-camera contract rauns counter to federal guidelines and expert recommendations that warn against paying contractors based on the number of citations they issue because such pay plans erode public support for the automated programs.

“Where a private contractor is responsible for the processing of citations, compensation to private vendors based on the number of citations issued should be avoided,” the Federal Highway Administration said in a report on red-light cameras last month.

“Compensation should be provided solely on the value of the equipment or the services provided,” the federal report states.

The District recently extended its red-light and speed camera contract with ACS State & Local Solutions to include a new compensation plan for the vendor. The new contract provides a $651,735 monthly fee and an extra $23,000 for each group of 2,500 tickets the vendor issues over a threshold of 53,750.

Previously, the city had paid ACS a fixed monthly fee of $759,992.

According to the agreement, city officials are projecting the number of citations issued in the District could increase to as many as 130,750 per month. Under that scenario, ACS would receive $1.3 million a month, according to the contract.

Jack Archer, legal counsel for the Virginia-based National Committee for Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances, said most transportation experts agree with the federal guidelines against tying compensation to ticket volume.

“When you link compensation to the number of tickets issued, you create a question in the minds of the public,” Mr. Archer said. “You’re raising the question of whether this is a revenue raiser, and that’s a horrible thing to do.”

Instead, localities should pay vendors on a fixed-fee basis regardless of the number of citations motorists receive, he said.

Since August 2001, speed cameras have generated more than $63 million in fines for the District. The fines from red-light cameras at 39 intersections have totaled more than $28 million since 1999.

City officials were unavailable to comment on the federal guidelines yesterday.

The city’s new pay plan has heightened criticism of the District’s camera program from the AAA Mid-Atlantic Motor Club, which termed the city’s deployment of speed and red-light cameras “a Gotcha Game for Greenbacks” in a press release issued this week.

Thomas W. Brahams, executive director of the D.C.-based Institute of Transportation Engineers and a supporter of automated cameras, said fixed-fee agreements are the best way to reimburse contractors.

“Keeping it 100 percent pure is desirable, and the call to agencies in the District of Columbia is to find a way within the system that allows them to do so and to keep the vendor solvent,” he said.

In general, financial incentives can help government officials get better service from contractors, said Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.

But instead of tying the financial incentive to the number of citations issued, the District could award tangible public-safety benefits instead, such as a reduction of accident rates at certain key intersections, Mr. Schooner said.

“Most people would be appalled if in a private prison the contractor was incentivized for having more prisoners,” he said.

It was not clear yesterday which city agency had called for the new compensation plan.

The Metropolitan Police Department, which runs the camera program, has said the new pay arrangement helps compensate ACS for what is expected to be a bigger workload. Officials plan to expand the camera program.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, sought an explanation about the new arrangement from police Chief Charles H. Ramsey at a special hearing on the cameras on Wednesday.

Chief Ramsey said police aren’t concerned about how much revenue the cameras bring the city, but view the technology as a proven way to make intersections and city streets safer.

When asked about details of the contract, Chief Ramsey said it was negotiated by the D.C. Office of Contracting and Procurement. Officials from that agency could not be reached yesterday.

Chief Ramsey said the police department alone decides where to place cameras in the District, although he said ACS does provide site surveys that aid officials in deployment decisions.

ACS does not lobby police officials regarding the camera contract, according to records with the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance.

But the company, which also holds a contract to process parking tickets, has hired lobbyists to meet city officials on a regular basis.

From 2000 through the first half of 2004, ACS reported that it had paid a firm owned by D.C. lobbyist and political donor Kerry S. Pearson $404,434 — $350,000 of which covered his retainer — for “various parking- and transportation-related issues.”

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