Mayor Mitch Landrieu's plan to nearly double the number of traffic cameras in New Orleans got some pushback from the City Council on Wednesday.
At the council's first hearing on the mayor's proposed budget for 2017, several members, including James Gray and LaToya Cantrell, voiced skepticism about the plan, which the administration says is primarily designed to prevent speeding, rather than bring in more money for the city.
Gray argued that the cameras can't be improving public safety much if the city is still generating a significant amount of revenue from the traffic tickets they produce.
"If you had a system that worked, fewer people would speed and the number of speeders would be reduced and the revenue would be reduced," Gray said.
Wednesday's meeting was the first of about a dozen over the coming weeks at which council members will dig into the mayor's proposed $614 million operating budget.
Questions also came up about the mayor's plan to start collecting a sales tax of 40 cents per gallon on hard liquor, which already is on the books but hasn't been enforced for years. The administration expects the tax to bring in about $1.5 million annually.
Councilman Jared Brossett questioned whether the city has the authority under state law to implement the tax, a view later echoed by Danielle Leger, a representative of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.
City Attorney Rebecca Dietz said the tax is allowed by the state constitution and the city is prepared to defend it in court if necessary.
The Landrieu administration does not require authorization from the City Council to expand the traffic camera program. However, in a similar disagreement last year over parking meter rates and hours, council members were able to win changes to the plan in negotiations during the budget process.
The mayor's plan calls for installing 45 new stationary cameras and 10 mobile cameras around the city. Right now, there are 66 cameras in 42 locations.
The additional cameras are expected to bring in about $8 million next year, with $3 million of that going toward the extra expenses involved. The city expects the 66-camera program to bring in $16 million this year.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu is proposing to nearly double the number of traffic cameras in New Orle…
While acknowledging that some residents have requested more cameras, Cantrell questioned the administration's primary rationale for the expansion: the need to improve safety in school zones.
Cantrell set up a School Transportation Working Group after 6-year-old Shaud Wilson was killed in a 2014 hit-and-run while walking across Paris Avenue to get to his bus stop. That group, which wrapped up its work this year, did not recommend any expansion of the traffic camera program, Cantrell said. Instead, it suggested improving the visibility of school zone signs and flashing lights, she said.
"Not one time was one of the recommendations for more traffic cameras in school zones," Cantrell said.
A doubling of the number of traffic cameras in New Orleans and enforcement of a disused tax …
School zones are potentially lucrative sites for cameras because, under city policy, motorists driving as little as 6 mph over the limit can be ticketed there, while the policy provides more leeway for cameras in other areas.
Cantrell argued that the traffic cameras could disproportionately burden low-income residents who might not be able to afford the fines. "I'm particularly concerned about additional fines and fees levied against our people, poor people," she said.
Councilwoman Stacy Head disagreed. "It disproportionately affects speeders," she quipped.
Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Hebert defended the expansion of the program, saying that in the days since the expansion was announced, he had received emails from residents asking for the cameras to be installed near them.
"Just to be clear, the reason you're getting the ticket is because you're breaking the law," Hebert said.
The city's contract with an out-of-state firm that runs the traffic cameras also drew criticism from Gray, who said that if the city wants to watch for speeders in school zones it should hire unemployed city residents.
While the contract for the red light cameras is now out for bid, the administration was not able to name a local company that could do the work when Gray asked.