With camera discussions done, city staff now looks toward levy to bolster budget
by: Stover E. Harger III WAY RED — Monday afternoon this car blew through a red light at Gable Road and Highway 30, an intersection that would have had a red light camera if city plans moved forward.

St. Helens City Council has ceased the city's year-long plan to install red-light photo enforcement cameras at intersections along Highway 30, nixing a contract with Australian company Redflex.

Scuttling plans for the red-light enforcement cameras comes as little surprise to those within the city, including primary proponent Police Chief Steve Salle, who called the issue of red-light cameras 'polarizing.'

Now, the council's no-go decision about the cameras is expected to allow the city to pursue alternative funding avenues for the cash-strapped police department, primarily an operating levy, which city officials considered a risk if done in conjunction with a controversial red-light camera project.

The decision comes as the police department continues to grapple with dwindling revenue. The planned red-light cameras were considered a more efficient way of monitoring busy intersections, while at the same time collecting additional revenue from citations.

The city's focus has always been safety over generating revenue, Salle said. 'The point is, we were trying to keep the public safer at the intersections,' he said.

Despite the city's signing of a contract with Redflex last November, allowing the company to perform a traffic safety study at each of the city's intersections along Highway 30, the plan proved controversial among both city councilors and citizens. Councilors Doug Morten and Keith Locke called for more time to assess other safety alternatives during a November work session.

St. Helens is not alone in distancing itself from red-light enforcement cameras.

Cities vote against cameras

For example, a Los Angeles citizens' commission has recommended decommissioning the city's red-light cameras. Voters in Houston and Anaheim have also approved ballot measures to turn off their cities' red-light cameras.

The backlash is happening despite a recent 14-city national survey showing two out of three Americans favor red light cameras.

Gary Biler, executive director of the National Motorists Association, doesn't think the surveys are valid. As proof, he points to the 15 cities that have put the matter to voters in recent years.

'So far it's a perfect 15 for 15 that the cameras have been voted down,' said Biler, whose organization opposes red light cameras and automated photo radar for speeders.

Too many drivers don't trust the technology to be mistake-free and think the cameras are more about generating revenue than making cities safer, he said.

For his part, Salle said the cameras would not have generated a significant amount of city revenue.

Redflex was willing to install one camera at its own expens at the intersection of Gable Road and Highway 30.

City hopes levy could fix budget

Meanwhile, the financial outlook for the city, and the police department in particular, has grown progressively worse in recent months. For the current fiscal year, the city has chosen to cut about 10 percent from its budget, with more cuts expected next year.

To backfill the police department's coffers, the city is now looking to place an operating levy on the spring 2012 ballot. Salle told city councilors Wednesday afternoon he didn't believe citizens would accept both red light cameras and an operating levy.

Police roster lowest since 1979

Through layoffs and retirements, St. Helens' police department staffing has dropped to its lowest level since 1979, when Salle joined the department as an officer. There are 15 full-time police officers, Salle said.

Though city officials say they never considered red-light cameras as a revenue source, Salle said last fall that because citations would be involved, there would inevitably be a revenue component.

'I've come to the conclusion now that [an operating levy] is the logical route to take,' Salle told councilors, adding that the city's current tax rate is unsustainable to keep pace with growing costs.

Though St. Helens is the county seat, with a population of 12,883, the city's permanent property tax rate of $1.91 per $1,000 of assessed home value is the second lowest in the county, behind only Columbia City's.

Operating levies have become a common and necessary funding tactic since the 1990s. In that decade, Measure 5 and Measure 50 narrowly passed and essentially capped and limited long-term adjustments for taxing districts.

'Our [tax rate] is a very low number,' said City Administrator Chad Olsen. 'And when it's frozen, there's nothing we can do with that.'

Olsen will spearhead the city's operating levy, talks for which he characterized as preliminary. If the levy moves forward, he said he hopes to have it on either the spring or fall 2012 ballot.

-Additional reporting by Peter Korn

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