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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Brown: Seeing red, and plenty of green, in Suffolk's red-light camera program

A red-light camera at Indian Head Road and

A red-light camera at Indian Head Road and Jericho Turnpike in Commack in April 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Nobody liked the consultant's report.

That much, at least, became abundantly clear during two legislative committee meetings in Suffolk last week as lawmakers considered whether to extend the county's red-light camera program for five more years.

But let's jump to the chase.

Despite haggling over the work product of a consultant that cost Suffolk taxpayers almost $300,000, and despite lawmakers raising valid concerns over administration of the camera program, the extension — sorry red-light camera haters — is likely to slide through to approval this week.

Why?

For one, some statistics show that the program — in Nassau and in Suffolk — has been successful in changing driver behavior and reducing the number of serious accidents at intersections covered by red-light cameras.

But — and thanks, Ryan McGarry of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees, for being direct in your testimony on the issue — it's about the money as well.

As McGarry told lawmakers, in expressing the union's support for extending the program, killing red-light cameras would "blow a $30 million hole" in Suffolk's $3 billion budget.

In Nassau, meanwhile, there's no corresponding controversy — probably because there's no need to extend Nassau's program.

It's already locked in, via local law, through 2024.

As for safety, “The evidence shows us that this program isn’t just effective — it’s saving lives," according to a statement from County Executive Laura Curran.

"Since we’ve implemented this program, we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of crashes at red light camera intersections," Curran said. "We’ve also seen drops in violations at intersections with red-light cameras after installation.”

Still, the money ain't bad, either.

In 2016 — the latest year for which figures are available — Nassau's program generated $48.5 million in fines and fees for an operating budget that, like Suffolk's, also is about $3 billion.

But while passage of the extension in Suffolk on Wednesday is likely, lawmakers on the public safety committee last week voted to pass the bill on for a full vote of the legislature — but balked at making any recommendation on the measure.

Still, while some lawmakers remain — now and forever — opposed to the program, others are pressing County Executive Steve Bellone to consider changes in how the program is administered, along with exploring measures other than cameras to improve traffic safety.

One element the administration is working on, according to Jon Kaiman, Bellone's top deputy, is altering a request for proposals that would have the vendor add a payment program for violations.

That measure, lawmakers said, is important because costs accumulate quickly for violators who are unable to pay fines and fees all at once.

In addition, Kaiman said, the administration will — as some lawmakers want — take another look at intersections where rear-end and other accidents in Suffolk have increased, even as serious injuries declined.

That increase in injuries spurred Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) to introduce a bill, later passed and signed by Bellone in 2017, to retain a third party to review the red-light camera program.

She asked, specifically, that the third party review intersections where accidents had increased, according to a December 2016 report by the county Traffic and Parking Violations Agency, and to recommend whether cameras at those locations should remain.

In 2018, her resolution was amended, to give the consultant, L.K. McLean Associates, more time for the review.

But Anker last week was among several lawmakers who found fault with the report, which finally was submitted to lawmakers earlier this year.

"I asked for specifics," she said, after reading off portions of the resolution she had offered two years ago … I am disappointed."

Even Paul Margiotta, TPVA's executive director, said he had some issues with the report.

Was it a waste of taxpayer money, as some lawmakers complained?

No, said Kaiman, even as he, too, took issue with some of the consultant's methodology. 

"We can use it as a benchmark," Kaiman said. "It has value and we can build on it."

Nonetheless, there are certain to be fireworks at this week's meeting, as the clash over safety versus money goes on.

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