December 17, 2013 By Scott Calvert and Yvonne Wenger, McClatchy News Service
Baltimore plans to pay its speed camera vendor $600,000 to end a troubled relationship that has left the city's once-lucrative automated enforcement program offline since April, city officials said Monday.
Termination of the contract with Brekford Corp. puts the future of the city's speed and red-light camera system in question. One city councilwoman says it's time to stop using technology to nab speeders and red-light runners.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said the city should stop using speed cameras and instead station more traffic officers at dangerous intersections and "speedways," whether by paying police overtime or by hiring more traffic enforcement officers.
"Let's go with what we know: professionals standing there doing their job, working with the citizens to ensure safety, especially for our elderly and our children," Clarke said. "I think we've tried long and hard enough" with the cameras, she said, "and wasted an awful lot of money in the process."
The city's proposed settlement with Brekford, based in Anne Arundel County, is expected to be approved Wednesday by the Board of Estimates. Ending the five-year contract early will allow the city to "re-evaluate the scope" of its speed and red light camera program, change the way it compensates the vendor and "better execute the public safety mission of automated traffic enforcement," according to a memo from a city attorney describing the deal.
Brekford, which took over the city's camera program in January, agreed to accept $600,000 "to carry out this mutually-agreed termination, and to resolve any outstanding disputes related to the matter between the parties," the memo said.
No Brekford officials were available to comment late Monday, a receptionist at the Hanover-based firm said. Chief executive C.B. Brechin did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The deal marks the second time in less than a year that the city has parted ways with a speed camera vendor. Its previous contractor, Xerox State and Local Solutions, left in late 2012, amid a Baltimore Sun investigation that documented erroneous speed readings from several cameras -- including one that ticketed a driver for speeding while stopped at a red light.
The city will continue to evaluate its options to "re-scope the program" to work for Baltimore, said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
"The mayor has said on several occasions that the speed camera program would not come back online until its accuracy and overall ability to function met the highest possible standards," Harris said in a statement. "Brekford expended significant resources to help create a system that performed at the highest standard, but ultimately it became clear that Baltimore needs to move in a different direction to ultimately build a system that uniquely fits our city."
The city made one previous payment to Brekford of $700,000 in August. The city has said that was partial payment for Brekford's purchase of 72 speed camera units, for which the city had agreed to pay $2.2 million.
According to the settlement, the city will own all the hardware, except for 10 portable cameras and the modems from the 82 red light cameras. It's not clear how the city will use the equipment.
"We expect to make use of the equipment under a new program or to put the equipment to use for other traffic safety purposes as we move forward in a new direction," Harris said.
The city had been counting on the cameras to generate more than $15 million this year alone: $11 million from the $40 speed camera citations and more than $4 million from $75 red-light camera tickets. The city budget does not tally how much of that would have gone to Brekford. The company was to have had a share of every ticket paid -- $11.20 per speed camera ticket.
The Sun reported last month that city officials were moving to end the contract. Sources familiar with discussions between the city and Brekford said city officials had grown frustrated with the company's mistakes in trying to revive Baltimore's program, once North America's largest with more than 160 cameras. Speed cameras alone generated $50 million since 2009.
Tests by the city after the program went offline showed that, almost a year after Brekford took over in January, the system was still troubled by inaccurate speed readings, incorrect addresses and tickets listing wrong information on how to pay a citation, city officials have said.
Noting that all speed and red light cameras have been offline for months, Councilman William H. Cole IV suggested last month that the city consider doing away with the cameras permanently.
Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said she was not surprised by news of a settlement "given the challenges" the city's program has faced.
"We are encouraged that city officials are looking to better focus on public safety and are reviewing compensation for vendors, which remains a concern of AAA and our members," she said.
Averella said the driver advocacy group is not calling for an end to automated enforcement. "We just want to see them work effectively and accurately, and not see the 'gotcha' game with motorists," she said. "We want them to focus on public safety and not revenue."
The city had estimated total revenue over the five-year contract term at $93 million.
Councilman Brandon Scott said he intends to move forward with an investigative hearing on speed cameras scheduled for Jan. 15, adding that he remains supportive of automated enforcement.
Baltimore needs to operate speed cameras for the safety of its citizens, as Washington and other cities do, Scott said. Baltimore County and Howard County use cameras in school zones, and the State Highway Administration places them in highway work zones.
Scott called the city's situation with Brekford "embarrassing" and said he wants to explore "everything under the sun" at the hearing.
"What's wrong with the program and who was at fault? I am not naive enough to believe it was just Brekford that had issues," Scott said. "We have to make sure we have the program back up as soon as possible. What's the hold up? What's taken so long? We should not have to move at this snail's pace."
(c) 2013 The Baltimore Sun