Monday, March 31, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — A state lawmaker says Montgomery County is “exploiting a loophole” in state law designed to keep speed-camera operators from profiting off the number of speeding tickets issued.

“Some of our residents are starting to get the sense [speed cameras] are a cash cow, and we need to do everything in reason to assure them that is not the case,” said Delegate Saqib Ali, Montgomery Democrat.

State lawmakers in 2006 granted Montgomery County the authority to place speed cameras — which photograph motorists violating the posted speed limit — throughout the county and to issue citations that carry $40 fines.

The county reached an agreement in 2006 with Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc. (ACS) on a camera system that deploys six vans with speed cameras and 13 stationary speed cameras, as of December. County officials plan to expand to 30 fixed speed cameras by the end of the year.

According to Transportation Article 21-809(j) of the Maryland Code, “If a contractor operates a speed monitoring system on behalf of Montgomery County, the contractor’s fee may not be contingent on the number of citations issued or paid.”

County officials declined a request from The Washington Times to obtain a copy of the contract with ACS.

But according to the minutes of a Jan. 29, 2007, meeting of the Rockville City Council, during which legislators approved a “rider bid” to install cameras in the city as part of the ACS contract with the county, ACS gets paid “$16.25 per paid citation for each fixed site and $16.25 per paid citation or $2,999.00 per month per deployed mobile unit whichever is greater.”

“I was shocked,” Mr. Ali said about learning of the per-ticket amount paid to the contractor. “I think it should stop.”

Montgomery County officials said they received approval to enter into the contract with ACS from Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, then Montgomery County’s state’s attorney, because county police said they operate the cameras rather than the contractor.

A news release issued in January by ACS announcing the expansion of the camera program in Montgomery County defines the role of the contractor:

“Under the contract, ACS processes violations; generates and mails notices; schedules adjudication and appeals appointments; provides document imaging and correspondence management; provides walk-in customer service; maintains camera equipment; and provides pay-by-web, pay-by-phone, and integrated voice response systems.”

Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police Department, maintained that the police department operates the cameras because officers determine whether a driver caught on camera violated the law and where the cameras should be placed.

A representative with Dallas-based ACS declined to comment for this report.

Miss Baur said the county collected $2.6 million from speed-camera tickets last year, but paid $3.5 million to implement the program.

The program was generally lauded when it was implemented last year, in large part because it confined the cameras to residential areas and school zones with speed limits of 35 mph or less.

State lawmakers who voted for the 2005 bill authorizing speed cameras in Montgomery County said the per-ticket payment clause was designed to stop speed-camera contractors from profiteering at residents’ expense.

“It was incorporated into the legislation to ensure a profit motive didn’t drive the speed-camera enforcement,” said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat who supported the Montgomery County law and is also supporting a statewide speed-camera bill. “You’re not supposed to have a bounty that was paid to the contractor.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, has proposed expanding speed cameras to every other jurisdiction in the state, and lawmakers appear ready to approve his measure this year. The statewide measure has passed initial votes and is awaiting final approval in the Senate and House.

Mr. O’Malley’s proposal carries the same language as the Montgomery County law, including the clause prohibiting per-ticket payments to contractors.

Lawmakers have largely split along party lines on the measure, with Democrats advocating for speed cameras, although a handful of Democrats have broken ranks and voted against speed cameras consistently.

“There’s no ability for discretion,” said Delegate Anne Kaiser, the only member of the Montgomery County delegation to vote against the 2005 bill.

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