Mesa City Council may pull the plug on photo radar vans
Sarah N. Lynch, Tribune
The Mesa City Council soon will have to decide whether to continue operating all five of the police department’s photo enforcement vans.

Like the 30 cameras scattered at intersections throughout the city, the vans also are losing money, the Mesa Police Department reported Tuesday.

Police officials told members of the Public Safety Committee that the department projects a $452,000 yearly loss on the vans, mostly due to the personnel costs associated with operating them.

Revenue projections were too optimistic, based on results so far, because the number of citations issued through the vans is much lower than expected.

The report on the losses raises questions about the financial stability of the photo enforcement program, already under scrutiny.

After the city signed a contract with American Traffic Solutions in January 2006 to operate its expanded photo enforcement program, the police department found it difficult to enforce the traffic citations because of poor photo quality.

It also was recently reported that ATS had overbilled the city by more than $300,000.

ATS has corrected both those issues by improving the images and reimbursing the city for the billing error. Yet the program has been losing roughly $100,000 a month since last year.

Police Chief George Gascón told the City Council that at some point it will have to decide if it wants to reduce the number of vans to cut costs or reposition them in a way that would lead to more citations.

Gascón said placing cameras in areas known for speeders would generate more revenue, but it might not be as effective as putting them in places where there tend to be more crashes.

“It will be difficult to make the vans revenue-neutral unless you alter the philosophy of how we deploy them,” he said, adding that he would focus on maximizing public safety.

The council appeared prepared to accept the idea that the photo enforcement program may not, as originally anticipated, pay for itself.

“If we’re losing money because the cameras are scaring the hell out of people and they’re slowing down at these intersections, then that’s a good thing,” Councilman Tom Rawles said.

Still, members of the Public Safety Committee seemed frustrated with the snags in the program. Councilman Mike Whalen asked who was in charge of the program and lamented all of the “screw-ups” that have occurred.

The Mesa Police Department has limited data on the effectiveness of the program because it was not until March that all 30 intersection cameras and five vans began operating simultaneously.

Police officials requested an additional 60 to 90 days to evaluate the program and recommend ways to make best use of the photo-enforcement vans.