The recent Iowa Supreme Court decision this past week stating that the Iowa Department of Transportation did not have authority over the use of Automatic Traffic Enforcement (ATE) systems renewed discussion on the amount of money received by Muscatine from the fines, what that money is used for, and how much of the total fine does not stay in Muscatine.
The ATE system in Muscatine consists of permanent fixtures at five intersections along with a mobile unit. The five intersections in Muscatine that have had the ATE system operating since April 2011 include Washington Street at Park Avenue (north and south approaches), Cleveland Street at Park Avenue (north and south approaches), Cedar Street at Houser Street (east and west approaches), University Drive at U.S. Highway 61 (westbound approach), and Mulberry Avenue at U.S. Highway 61 (westbound approach). There is also a mobile unit that has been in operation for the past several years and is parked at different locations throughout the city.
The University Drive camera was taken off-line in April 2017 after the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered the camera removed. That DOT order began the litigation that led to the Supreme Court ruling last week. No determination has been made as yet as to when that camera system will be placed on-line. The system at that intersection would have to be cleaned, calibrated, and inspected before being put back into service.
ATEs actually act as a force multiplier by improving public safety while allowing officers to respond to important calls within the community. The videos from these cameras have also been used to help criminal investigations as well as crash investigations that occur in or near the approaches. There have been at least two occasions where the ATE footage has been credited with helping to resolve local shootings.
The ATE system marked its seventh anniversary of its deployment in March 2018.
History of the ATE in Muscatine
The City of Muscatine began collecting accident data and conducting speed and red light violation surveys in 2009. Eight approaches at five intersections were determined to meet the criteria necessary for the deployment of ATE with the City of Muscatine awarding the contract for the ATE initiative to Gatso USA in 2010.
The ATE system is authorized by Title 7 (Vehicles and Traffic), Chapter 5 (Automated Traffic Enforcement) of the City Code of Muscatine. The ordinance was approved by the Muscatine City Council in September 2010.
Prior to the implementation of the ATE equipment, public hearings and meetings were held during City Council meetings for at least a year, posters were displayed at various locations across the city, informational pamphlets were distributed to the public, and information was disseminated by email and posted on the internet.
The ATE equipment was built and installed by Gatso USA at NO COST to the City of Muscatine.
The City and Gatso USA submitted plans for the ATE systems at the five intersections to the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) and work closely with the DOT during the entire construction process to ensure the systems and sign placement met all DOT specifications at the time. The City went a further step and added “traffic laws photo enforced” signs on every corporate limit sign posts on roadways entering Muscatine.
According to the contract, GATSO USA receives $27 of every PAID fine to offset capital costs as well as their operating costs to review and forward the possible violations to the Police Department, sending first and second notices, collecting fines, and the maintenance of that equipment. (The amount is 36 percent of the amount of fines collected).
Tickets are reviewed and approved by a Muscatine Police Officer who signs off on the citation letter before the citation is issued. In Muscatine, a ticket is not issued unless the driver is going 11 mph over the stated speed limit. Tickets are issued for drivers going six mph or over in school zones and construction zones. Each citation has the appeals process listed on the form but that process must be started within 30 days after the citation is issued.
Where does the money from the fines go?
The fines are collected by Gatso USA and transferred to the City of Muscatine. Gatso USA bills the City of Muscatine monthly ($27 for each PAID citation) which are among the bills for approval presented to the City Council at each regular meeting. For Fiscal Year 2016-2017, the last full year of data, the city received $723,454.00 from Gatso USA in fines collected while another $214,303.26 was received from the cities collection agency.
Of the total revenue received, $285.741 was paid to Gatso USA over the course of the fiscal year while $652,016.26 was placed in the Police Department General Fund or 69.5 percent of the total revenue from the fines. That percentage was 68.1 percent for 2015-2016, 71.2 percent for 2014-2015, 67.3 percent for 2013-2014, 67.2 percent of 2012-2013, and 67.3 percent for 2011-2012.
In other words, nearly $7 of every $10 received stays in Muscatine and is used by the Muscatine Police Department or by other departments, as needed, for public safety.
So what’s the future of the ATE system?
The Iowa legislature has two pieces of legislation being debated that could affect the future of ATE’s in Iowa. The House bill would permit ATE cameras under certain conditions and provide regulations for the use of these ATE systems. The regulations closely follow what the City of Muscatine has had in place since 2011. The Senate bill would eliminate the use of ATE cameras as a means to catch those breaking the law.
The Supreme Court ruling does allow, at least until the state legislature decides on a course of action, the City of Muscatine to bring the camera at University Drive and U.S. Highway 61 back online after a year’s absence. City officials are assessing their options and determining a timeline for returning that camera to full operation but it will be at least two months before the camera would be used to issue citations for red light running and/or speeding.
By that time the city will probably know which way, if any, the state legislature will go.
What would the loss of the fine revenue mean for Muscatine?
The Muscatine Police Department budget is funded, in part, by the fines received from the ATE system. These funds enabled Muscatine to retain one Street Crimes unit (SCU) officer and one School Resource Officer (SRO) when grant funding for those positions ended. ATE funds were also used to add four firefighter positions since the 2012-2013 fiscal year. One fire engine and one ambulance were also acquired without having to incur additional debt.
The loss of the ATE revenue in conjunction with the possible loss of “backfill” revenue from the State of Iowa (which is also being discussed this session) will have serious effects not only in public safety but across all City of Muscatine departments.
It is still too early to answer the “what if” questions.
What is known is that local jurisdiction of ATE cameras has been upheld by the Iowa Supreme Court.
And, as City Administrator Gregg Mandsager has stated in discussions with local citizens and state representatives concerning ATE’s … if you don’t want to pay the fine, don’t break the law.