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Editorial: Slow down to assess speed-camera revenue

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012)

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano (March 19, 2012) Credit: Howard Schnapp

In the hectic process of compiling a state budget, some issues can become so complicated and contentious they have to be set aside to be dealt with later. Sometimes that's a good thing, as with the authorization of speed cameras for Long Island and New York City.

The bill would have put a camera in each school district in Nassau and Suffolk. Nassau County is counting on authorization of 56 cameras to ticket speeding motorists so it can finance a hurried lifting of its wage freeze and grant big raises to cops and other county employees. To garner the needed votes, the largesse was spread around. Suffolk would get 69 new cameras and New York City 120, but the legislation was really a special favor to Nassau.

Since the cameras were never intended to provide the state a penny of revenue, the authorizations never should have been part of negotiations on the 2014 budget. Still, they would have been approved easily, were it not for a demand from Assemb. Earlene Hooper that her constituent villages of Freeport and Hempstead somehow be cut in on the action. That wrinkle was complex enough to kill the bill last week.

Then on Sunday, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver introduced a stand-alone measure authorizing the cameras, but tweaked for Hooper, a fellow Democrat. It says that money collected from violations on any village-maintained road in Nassau would go to the village, and not the county. It's a shockingly specific caveat: It makes no such allowances for towns or cities in Nassau, or any municipalities in Suffolk.

The exception would mean less revenue for Nassau County, which already was likely to see far less from the cameras than it was projecting, or rather, hoping.

How much cash would go to the villages? There are 64 incorporated villages in Nassau, and figuring out how many maintain roads that include school zones, and how many of the cameras might end up on those roads, are yet more complex questions that need to be answered before the county will know whether it can afford to lift the wage freeze for more than 7,000 workers.

Now that approval of these revenue-raising cameras is uncertain, it's a great time to suspend the Nassau union negotiations. We favor slowing down speeders in school zones, and we think cameras are a reasonable way to achieve it, especially since the police unions are dropping their usual objections to these devices. And if some of the revenue is used to lift the wage freeze, that's fine.

But there must be a realistic assessment of just how much money the cameras would raise. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that Nassau's existing red-light cameras will be renewed, putting as much as $20 million more in annual revenue at risk, which would blow another hole in the county's budget.

Meanwhile, as the Nassau County Legislature rushes to schedule a vote on lifting the freeze, a looming question is whether it's legal to put new hires into the state's new, cheaper pension tier while still operating under an old, but extended, contract. No one will know how much this new contract will cost until the Nassau Interim Finance Authority and the county legislative budget office release their reviews. And how about giving the public a little time to weigh in? If the new contracts can't be paid for, the freeze can't be lifted.

New questions are popping up far faster than answers.