Freebies sweeten deal as red-light-camera firm pushed for new Boynton contract

Red-light cameras in South Florida have been fizzling out in recent years, but one camera company is ready to bring them back with a bang.

And it’s offering a sweet deal to get it done.

Before decided Tuesday to reactivate its cameras, a representative of offered the city several freebies worth thousands of dollars.

The company proposed equipping Boynton police with license-plate readers. It also plans to let the city use its red-light cameras for live-video surveillance. The features would be added onto the city’s program at no cost to Boynton, a company representative told the city.

The Arizona-based company, which is behind red-light cameras in many South Florida cities, plans to roll out such new technology to all cities it has contracts with, and even cities it doesn’t yet do business with, said Charles Territo, a company spokesman.

Territo declined to say if the company would consider offering freebies to other cities, too. He said that ATS has offered incentives like this before but wouldn’t go into specifics.

American Traffic Solutions will offer the license-plate readers and surveillance-video features to each city it services, as well as any other cities that may be considering renewing or establishing the system. The company would work with each city to determine how the benefits will fit into their contracts, he said.

Both technologies offered for free to Boynton Beach would otherwise amount to tens of thousands of dollars, which would be added onto a city’s contract depending on how many devices the city needs, Territo said. For example, one of each device could cost a city a combined $2,500, but most cities will need a larger supply of the devices.

Several South Florida cities stopped their controversial red-light camera programs after an appellate court ruled in 2014 that Hollywood, and therefore other cities, could not delegate ticket-writing to a third-party vendor. However, after that appellate ruling, a separate appellate court ruling found in favor of the camera systems.

It now goes to the Florida Supreme Court, which announced in May it would take up the case. A federal class-action suit demanding the return of fines paid by motorists is on hold pending that review.

Some city officials across South Florida have said the red-light cameras aren’t about the money, but instead about public safety.

Still, the cameras do reel in money for cities. In the first five years that Boynton had its red-light program, it drew more than $3.5 million in revenue.

Boynton, the final holdout city with cameras in Palm Beach County, maintains that an officer reviews the infraction before the $158 ticket is sent out, but the red-light camera program last year. Boynton’s cameras in prior years had cost the city about $71,000 a month to operate.

On Tuesday, the city brought back the issue of reactivating the cameras at the request of Commissioner Mack McCray, who said he had seen a change in driver behavior in the eight months since the cameras went dark.

Mayor Steven Grant and Vice Mayor Justin Katz supported the program all along, and voted in favor of renewing the city’s contract with American Traffic Solutions until 2021.

Shana Bridgeman, Boynton’s assistant city attorney, reminded commissioners that they couldn’t yet vote on the freebies ATS was offering, and that Tuesday’s vote only would affect the contract as it existed last year. But they can accept the incentives in the future, she said.

The features still will be offered to Boynton for free if and when the city accepts them, Territo said.

Boynton requested license-plate readers and live-video surveillance before the city ended its red-light camera contract last year, he said. “The city had been asking for that previously, but at the time we didn’t yet have the ability to to live-view video from the cameras,” he said.

Since the cameras were turned off, the Boynton Beach Police Department has requested footage from the cameras to assist in investigations on 17 occasions, including a fatal hit-and-run that killed 51-year-old Naborina Palacios when she was crossing Congress Avenue in June. It was unclear Friday whether any footage helped the hit-run investigation.

Boynton residents can expect to see the cameras back on in the next few weeks, after ATS has taken time to check all 15 cameras for wear and tear, he said.

Chris Montague, 30, of Boynton, told the city he thinks the programs are invasive. “I ask you all to protect the privacy and rights of your citizens, and not allow private companies to monitor us,” he told city commissioners. “I understand there may be some situations in which cameras are helpful, but this is just opening the door to constant surveillance and giving up more and more privacy.”

He also told the city he disliked the incentives the company was offering. “The last thing I’ll say, because there was some excitement about some freebies, is when something is free, you’re the product,” he said.

The camera equipment was kept up in Boynton at the request of Mayor Grant, but it isn’t uncommon for cities to request that the hardware stays put, either for other uses or in case the city decides to start the program back up at a later date, Territo said.

“We’re optimistic that the city will recognize the benefits that the cameras provided and that newer technologies may also offer,” he said.

Vice Mayor Justin Katz said the license-plate readers would be put to good use by the city’s police department. A network of such devices would help law enforcement invaluably, at least to identify the car that a perpetrator drove, he said.

“The implementation of license-plate readers cannot be understated,” he said. “We do have a crime issue in the city of Boynton Beach. Oftentimes, people commit crimes and then they disappear and our police force is left to figure out these situations and try to track people down.”

Pembroke Pines is also its program back up after four years without it, but with a different vendor. Tickets are set to be issued Aug. 25.

Boynton and Pembroke Pines join Davie, Sunrise, Tamarac and West Park. Sixteen cities in Miami-Dade County also still operate red-light camera systems.

“We still have a number of cities using the cameras, and we still have a very strong presence in Florida,” Territo said. “As Florida cities continue to manage their challenges of both traffic safety and crime, we’re looking to provide them with technology solutions to meet their needs.”

Territo declined to comment on the pending Supreme Court decision, but said the company is optimistic.

“We’re hopeful that as programs become more mature, and the benefits of the technology are seen, that the Legislature will ultimately support the continuation of the programs,” he said.

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