LAFAYETTE — The proposed city-parish budget for 2011-12 digs deep into revenue from Lafayette’s traffic-camera enforcement program to cover routine expenses, moving away from the practice of reserving the money for traffic safety projects.
The local law that set up the automated enforcement program stipulated that fines left over after covering its operating costs be used for projects related to public safety.
The law lists specific examples — police officers to work traffic details, driver education campaigns, work to improve the safety of intersections — but the administration is still given much leeway in using the money.
In the case of City-Parish President Joey Durel’s proposed budget, about $1.3 million of the traffic-camera money is set aside for salaries, employee health insurance and other operating expenses in the city’s Traffic and Transportation Department.
Durel said he would rather use the traffic-camera money “for more tangible traffic safety improvements” but that the cash is badly need to balance the proposed budget, which has been made tight by projections of flat tax collections and rising expenses for employee retirement and healthcare.
“It was just necessary to do it,” he said. “My plan today is that we won’t dip into it next year.”
If budget projections for the traffic-camera program’s future revenue are correct, the practice of spending the money at the level budgeted cannot be sustained because the camera program is not expected to generate enough money.
The plan to use the traffic-camera money to prop up the budget has caught the eye of some members of the City-Parish Council, which is scheduled to review the traffic-camera spending Thursday as part a series of budget hearings this month.
“They (residents) were told this was about safety,” Councilman William Theriot said. “It’s not about safety. It’s about money.”
Council Chairman Kenneth Boudreaux said he has concerns about possibly becoming too dependent on the traffic-camera money, especially considering that the revenue has not been stable and that the city has had problems with collecting past-due fines.
“There is no guarantee that the money will remain available,” he said.
Boudreaux also said the intent of the local law that set up the program was to use the money for traffic-safety programs rather than routine expenses.
Boudreaux had proposed changing that law last year to allow the money to be used for more general public safety projects beyond traffic, such as special police operations, precinct buildings and police officer overtime.
The council vote 6-3 against the change, which was opposed by Durel.
Durel said at the time that the spending guidelines that prioritize traffic safety were put in place to answer concerns that the camera-enforcement program was a government “money grab.”
Councilman Jay Castille said he would rather not use the traffic-camera money for recurring expenses but sees few alternatives this year.
If the council chooses not to use the money to help shore up the traffic department’s budget, the council members would need to fill a $1.3 million budget hole.