Top Nassau officials have been united of late in their support for more conspicuous warning signs at the dozens of county school zones with controversial new speed cameras.
But those officials, from County Executive Edward Mangano's staff to legislative leaders, were initially slow to acknowledge the need for the heightened notification -- with some dismissing it altogether.
Minutes from several county legislature meetings earlier this year show that both lawmakers and the administration underestimated the public anger that would come from this fall's implementation of the speed camera program. It wasn't until the second of three legislative hearings on the program that anyone greatly stressed the issue of better warning drivers.
And even then, the officials -- largely Democrats -- who raised the point ultimately supported the speed camera initiative by Mangano, a Republican, leading to its unanimous approval on June 2. Nassau expects to raise $30 million a year in revenue from the cameras, helping to pay for new labor deals, but during discussions, county leaders consistently said safety was their main goal.
"It has definitely taken people by surprise," Legis. Carrié Solages (D-Elmont) said Thursday of the public outcry, which has stemmed from reports of some motorists receiving up to a dozen of the $80 tickets before even realizing the cameras were in place.
Dems: Shut them down
Democrats have made the program a political focal point and are now calling for it to be shut down until the school zones with speed cameras have prominent, uniform warning signs installed. On Wednesday, Mangano's office said the county will spend $1 million to place reduced speed-limit signs with large flashing lights at 56 sites authorized for the cameras.
The initiative will use community project funds suggested last month by the legislature's 11-member GOP majority, after Democrats in September had blocked Mangano's plan to borrow $6.5 million to put the lighted signs outside all of Nassau's 434 public and private schools.
Though they differed on how to pay for them, no lawmaker or administration aide is dismissing the importance of installing new signs.
It was different months ago.
"The fact is, these areas are already properly marked," Christopher Mistron, Mangano's traffic safety coordinator, said on June 2, the day the legislature gave final approval to the speed cameras. "What we're looking for is for people to actually do compliance."
On Wednesday, however, Mangano's chief deputy, Rob Walker, explained why the county will spend $1 million on the prominent lighted signs by saying: "The more additional safeguards you can put in place alerting motorists, the better off we all are."
The administration initially downplayed the need for more notification at school zones by saying each site already had signs or pavement markings listing the reduced speed limit. Tickets are generated when motorists drive more than 10 mph over the posted limit, generally between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
In April, Mangano's office said it would simply ask towns or villages to post proper hours at all school zones. In May, after Solages asked about added notification for mobile-unit cameras, Mistron noted the existing markings, saying, "I think you already have the warning."
By June 2, lawmakers were expressing more concern. That prompted Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) to say the speed camera bill would be amended to require that signs indicating the presence of cameras be placed in eligible school zones.
On June 16, the legislature passed that amendment. But when the program rolled out, motorists said the black-and-white signs were too small, hard to read and placed where not everyone could see them.
Marc Fishman, 63, of Malverne, said he and his daughter received four speed camera tickets within a three-week span earlier this year, including one at a school where he estimated "children don't come within 200 yards of the road."
"I've been living in Nassau for 30 years and can't remember ever being as angry with the county," said Fishman, who works for Xerox in Manhattan. "There's no real reason to do this except to raise money."
Stalemate on signage
The movement to install the speed limit signs with flashing lights began in September, but Mangano's initial plan to place them at every county school zone stalled when the legislature's eight-member Democratic minority didn't provide the votes to borrow the money, arguing that revenue from the speed cameras instead be used.
As that stalemate continued, Gonsalves wrote a letter to Mangano on Oct. 20 that asked that lawmakers' community revitalization funds be used for the signs. She referred to the June 2 approval of the speed cameras: "at the time, it was the intention of the Majority members of the Legislature to authorize further safety improvements at such locations in the form of flashing beacons to alert drivers that they are entering a school speed zone."
But on June 2, Gonsalves had responded to a Democratic lawmaker's calls for more signage by saying motorists already had enough notification: "The easiest way to educate them is for them to get a ticket and maybe they won't do it again."
Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said Wednesday he was glad Mangano was finally acting on the party's calls to install lighted signs, but repeated the point he has made often this fall.
"We still believe this program is working more to trap motorists than keep our children safe," Abrahams said.
The Democrats weren't always so critical. In April, at the legislative meeting where Nassau formally asked the state to authorize the speed cameras, Abrahams echoed statements then being made by Mangano and GOP lawmakers: "It makes our families, our children and pedestrians safer to ensure we have these speed cameras."