Article published Jan 12, 2006

RALEIGH -- With about $4.5 million and the future of red-light camera programs across the state on the line, the N.C. Court of Appeals heard the city of High Point's appeal of a decision to give Guilford County Schools the bulk of the money from the city's red-light cameras.

A three-judge panel didn't announce a date for a ruling after a one-hour hearing Tuesday morning.

A ruling in February 2005 by Guilford Superior Court awarded 90 percent of the proceeds from High Point's red-light camera program to the school system, less any refunds to drivers who successfully appealed their citations.

After the ruling, High Point didn't renew its contract with Peek Traffic, which operated the cameras. Greensboro suspended its program in March pending the outcome of High Point's appeal.

High Point's contract with Peek Traffic gave the contractor $27 to $35 of every $50 civil citation plus most late-payment fees. The judge's ruling meant the city would have to pay an additional $45 for each citation, making the program a money loser for the city.

Burley Mitchell, an attorney representing High Point, said the city would not reinstate the program if the appeal was unsuccessful, leaving the school system with a one-time infusion of cash and nothing further. "They just can't afford it," he said.

High Point officials have estimated the ruling could cost the city up to $1.5 million if its appeal is unsuccessful, while Greensboro would owe $3 million.

The case is focused on a state constitution clause mandating the "clear proceeds" from penalties for any breach of state penal laws be given to public schools.

Mitchell argued that the constitutional provision only covers the penal laws of the state, "not a purely local punishment." Bob King, an attorney for the school system, told the justices that siding with the city's arguments would lead to localities across the state asking the General Assembly for similar authority to punish other offenses and keeping the money instead of turning it over to school systems.

Judge Douglas McCullough encouraged both sides to work out a mediated settlement, but there are no ongoing talks.

Contact Eric Swensen at 373-7351 or eswensen@news-record.com