Nassau's school zone speed cams going from fiscal fix to political pitfall

Eileen Fagan with speeding citations in South Hempstead Eileen Fagan with speeding citations in South Hempstead on August 22, 2014. Fagan returned from vacation to find four citations for speeding in a school zone.

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

Ruh-Roh.

Looks like a political solution to Nassau County's nagging financial problems could grow into a political problem.

As Newsday's Spin Cycle political blog noted last week, the county's school zone speed cameras were the talk of county Republican chairman Joseph Mondello's annual golf outing, several people who attended the event told reporter Celeste Hadrick.

It seems that at least three Republican officials who received some of the 40,000 tickets issued during the unexpected summer rollout of the plan were miffed -- just like Nassau's residents.

"People feel like they were entrapped," one Republican who attended the outing at the Hempstead Golf & Country Club told Hadrick.

Meanwhile, county lawmakers -- along with Newsday's Community Watchdog Judy Cartwright, who has written extensively about the program -- were showered with hundreds of complaints from Nassau residents.

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Do Nassau Republicans view the complaints as a political problem? Anthony Santino, a spokesman for Mondello, had a one-word answer: "No."

But privately, others are worried that the ticket program, pushed by Republican County Executive Edward Mangano, could cost votes.

The last thing the party wants are residents taking out their anger over tickets at the polls, especially when Republicans are trying to hold on to control of the State Senate.

And especially because two Nassau races -- Republican incumbent Jack Martins versus Democrat Adam Haber and Democrat David Denenberg versus Republican and fellow Nassau lawmaker Michael Venditto -- could be key.

Here's a sample of what one Nassau resident, via email, is thinking: "I for one, intend to show my dissatisfaction in November by voting against all incumbents. Every ticket issued should be translated into a vote against an incumbent. Let's see what happens then!"

Yikes.

For one, the reader is sophisticated enough to know that the measure approving Nassau's school speed-zone cameras was approved unanimously by Republicans and Democrats in the county legislature -- which makes him bipartisan angry.

But what, exactly, is fueling the anger?

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The primary reason seems to be that the program began with no public announcement -- which seems to run contrary to what some administration officials had intended.

"Well, our plan was to follow pretty much the red light camera plan in that ... we did not give a grace period," Christopher Mistron, Nassau's traffic safety coordinator, told lawmakers in April. "However, what we are able to do is try to bring in an educational period before the installation."

But that, of course, did not happen. Instead, drivers began receiving tickets -- 40,000 of them totaling more than $2 million in fines. And, as Mangano would disclose later, some 10,000 of those tickets -- a quarter, which is a disturbingly high percentage -- had been issued in error. That's no way to roll out a program. And Mangano, agreeing, took the extraordinary step of granting amnesty on every ticket.

But come Tuesday and Wednesday, as school begins, cameras will go live again.

This time around, there's been public notice -- last week's robocall, not, as some might have expected, from Mangano, but from John G. Marks, head of the county traffic and violations agency.

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And a Mangano spokesman said the county -- in light of complaints from some school districts -- was surveying schools for start, end, before- and after-school times.

Suffolk made the wise decision to take time in implementing its school zone camera program -- which won't go into effect until 2015.

But Suffolk has time that Nassau did not -- because Nassau put itself into a box. The county needs money to pay for union contracts. And Mangano is determined not to raise taxes.

Just last week, during a meeting with Nassau Interim Finance Authority chairman Jon Kaiman, the county continued to project revenue enough, primarily from school zone speed cameras, to cover contract costs. Which likely means a lot more angry Nassau residents. Although state law allows only one operational speed camera per school district, Nassau's districts are geographically very small.

What's a driver in Nassau -- or Suffolk, for that matter -- to do? It's simple: Pay attention, follow the law and slow down in school zones.

Yes, that would mess up county revenue projections. But better driving would, most certainly, keep students safe.

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