WTVM Investigates: Red light cameras in Phenix City more for safety or city profit

Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 11:17 PM EDT
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COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - They stand tall and somewhat awkwardly gazing over certain intersections in Phenix City. These poles aren’t like other poles. Instead, they’re waiting and watching, ready to snitch if you push it through the red light.

The city says they are necessary for proper law enforcement, and a federal court says whether you like it or not -- the red light ratter-outers are legal.

The city says since these cameras became residents of Phenix City, the percentage of crashes at monitored intersections have decreased significantly.

“The bigger result is even if we don’t have a camera on an intersection, we’ve got signs up that say the traffic violations are photo enforced, and hopefully that changes behavior for drivers in Phenix City,” said Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith.

But is that really the reason the traffic cameras are there? Phenix City makes a whole bunch of money from people running red lights.

“First thing, I prefer for that account to be zero,” said Wallace Hunter, city manager. “When you see a reduction of 35%, or so it is doing its job,”

News Leader 9 asked for the numbers in a public records request and was successful on the fourth try.

The cameras have been around for a while, since 2013.

For now though, we’re just going back three years -- 2020, 2021 and 2022. The vendor, Verra Mobility, handles collecting the funds, and they take their cut off the top then sends Phenix City their funds.

Citations are $100. Verra takes the first $34. Then the city gets the remaining $64. The state cut?

In 2020, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as normal because of pandemic closures. Phenix City bankrolled over $569,000 from people running red lights.

In 2022, the trend changed. Phenix City drivers wised up to the cameras. Many started doing the right thing and stopped at red lights enough to make the money go down significantly.

Phenix City’s cut was just shy of $419,000. That’s almost a quarter-million-dollar drop in funding.

So this year, the city added three more red light cameras - 17th Avenue, Crawford Road Westbound, and Opelika Road North and Eastbound.

“We have to use every preventative measure that we can, but like I tell them all the time we shouldn’t make a dime from those red light cameras. If people would follow the rules and regulations and guidelines it should be zero. So it shouldn’t be any concern from anyone and it doesn’t go on your record against your driving license or anything else. If they want to contribute to that fund that’s something that is a negative thing for us because we do not want that. We don’t want that revenue at all,” said Hunter.

The city refutes any claims of there being a connection between downward revenue figures and the new cameras, saying it takes three years worth of planning and zoning for the project to even happen.

“We don’t budget it. We take all of that money that is collected off of fines and forfeitures, we put it in a lockbox. We don’t include it in our budget. We don’t count it as income, but what we do do is that when the department has a need or the city has a need in public safety, we utilize those funds to purchase equipment,” said Hunter. “Really it is one of those behavior taxes that we call them. It’s a well-used tactic to try to reduce unwanted behavior. For example, we tax cigarettes and use it for firetrucks. We tax alcohol and use it for other things in the city. Those are behaviors we’d like to see decrease, use of tobacco, use of alcohol, and as you continue to decrease those the taxes go down. Red light camera tickets are no different.”

According to Auburn University Financial Expert Mandy Harrelson, anything over $101 can cause you some major problems if you don’t take care of the matter.

“Most definitely. Anytime you’re turned over to a collections agency it’s going to go on your credit report and that’s something that is easily accessible to your financial lenders and anyone of that nature. Now, depending on the cost of that ticket, that’s going to have a bigger impact. Typically anything under $100 does not see an impact on your credit score. Usually that $100 range is the threshold. Anything over could and it doesn’t matter if it’s $101 or $5,000, anything over $100 is where we typically see those bigger impacts on your credit scores,” said Harrelson.

And that type of hit stays with you for a very long time.

“Depending on where your credit score is originally is going to impact how big of a drop, but it can be a significant drop of 100 points or more in your credit score if that does hit your credit report,” said Harrelson.

And that can bring some major financial pain when you go to make some of life’s biggest purchases.

The hard truth of the matter is that Phenix City’s government benefits from the red light runners in town, significantly. And whether you like it or not, it’s best to pay up and move on.

The city manager says it’s personal for first responders in Phenix City, expressing the cameras make the city a better place for everyone.

“I could care less about those red light cameras whether they are there or not, but for the sake of prevention and to reduce crashes it needs to be there,” said Hunter.