New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is considering a compromise over the city's controversial traffic cameras, an issue that figured prominently during last year's mayoral election.
Although she once pledged to remove all of the scores of cameras along the city's major thoroughfares, Cantrell said she now wants to retain them in school zones but only during the hours when reduced speeds are enforced to protect students on their way to and from school.
The rest of the cameras could be removed in phases, so that the millions of dollars the city derives each year from camera traffic tickets won't fall off the books all at once.
During an interview on a range of challenges confronting her two-month-old administration, Cantrell outlined her new stance on the cameras, which jibes somewhat with recommendations her transition team made in May.
That team recommended keeping the cameras only in school zones but didn't suggest turning them off at certain times.
"I’m not against keeping them in school zones," Cantrell said, adding she doesn't think running the cameras at all hours makes sense.
"I don’t think that’s fair," she said.
Cantrell's staff stressed that no decisions will be final until the mayor completes her review of an analysis of the revenue generated from various types of cameras around the city. That analysis was finished last week.
But the mayor's statements indicate how she is leaning.
Cameras near schools snap images of vehicles going more than 20 mph from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 2:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., times when students are arriving and departing from schools. During the rest of the day, they enforce the normal limit on most divided streets of 35 mph.
It’s the enforcement outside school zone hours that Cantrell has a beef with. That enforcement is estimated to net the city roughly $9.4 million this year from stationary cameras and $756,000 from mobile police vans equipped with cameras, according to a city analysis.
The city is also expected to get about $5.6 million from its "red light" cameras at major intersections, which run anytime and which Cantrell also doesn’t want.
The total lost, should Cantrell scrap all cameras next year save for those that run during school zone hours, would be about $15.8 million.
That would leave the city in 2019 with about $4.7 million in camera revenue, less than a quarter of the $20.6 million expected this year.
But Cantrell said a “phased approach” is also on the table, though she did not elaborate on how many cameras might be phased out at one time.
Such a plan would give City Hall time to try to find money to replace what it would lose.
Councilman Joe Giarrusso, who has been a critic of Cantrell's original promise to yank all the cameras, said a gradual approach could help the city plug the New Orleans Police Department's looming multimillion-dollar deficit and help meet the mounting needs of other city departments.
The council was told recently that the NOPD faces a deficit of almost $8 million as a result of pay raises, promotions, overtime and state-mandated pension contributions
"The phased-in approach (to removing cameras) makes more sense," Giarrusso said Friday, adding that the public's attitude about the cameras could change with time, particularly if the city were to dedicate revenue from the cameras solely to issues New Orleanians care about most, like the criminal justice system and fixing streets.
If most of the cameras disappear at once, "How do we make up that revenue?" he said.
Cantrell also took issue with the 25 percent of camera revenue the city turns over to the private contractor that provides the cameras, American Traffic Solutions, though she stopped short of saying the city should end its deal with that company.
The Arizona-based firm is expected to get at least $6.8 million in 2018, reducing a more than $27 million source of revenue to $20.6 million.
The mayor’s stance on the cameras has evolved over the past year. While campaigning last year, she said she was skeptical that putting cameras near schools makes children safer.
But residents she’s talked to in the months since then seem willing to keep them in school zones, she said. So was her transition team.
“Because you can kind of rationalize it as it relates to schools,” Cantrell said. “But if that’s the case, I do not believe that they should be operating 24/7," only during regular school zone hours.