CEDAR RAPIDS — A state debt collection program that squeezes gambling winnings, tax returns and other income funneled through state coffers could be used to collect unpaid tickets from Cedar Rapids automated traffic cameras.
Cedar Rapids has $17.1 million in uncollected debt from camera tickets, and is looking at how to get some of that money back even as most of the cameras were ordered off by a judge earlier this year.
The proposal considered on Tuesday at a City Council meeting jumped to the heart of the debate about whether the controversial cameras are about money or safety.
“Do you think this is going to give the appearance the city is more worried about the revenue or about the safety?” questioned Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who has been a staunch defender of the camera program but opposes this collection tactic.
City Council on Tuesday voted 8-1 with Corbett opposed to advance the plan to turn over unpaid traffic camera tickets to the state’s offset program, which in turn taps into additional revenue streams. The new plan also would add a 25-percent late payment penalty, and expand the city code definition of “vehicle owner” to include those who lease a vehicle.
City Finance Director Casey Drew, who presented the plan, responded to Corbett, “I think they are separate issues. What we are trying to do as a city is identify other ways of collecting outstanding debt.”
City staff still are studying whether it can legally use the offset program to collect retroactively and if so how far back, but Drew recommended applying the program to past tickets. If the offset program is successful, Cedar Rapids could use it for other outstanding debt.
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The camera program has issued tickets, which start at $75 each, to the registered owner of a vehicle. This has been one of the most criticized aspects of the camera program, which has been in effect since 2010, because there’s no guarantee the owner was driving. However, leased vehicles weren’t accounted for in the city code leaving a loophole for motorists.
“The process had to change because we were challenged in court,” said Cedar Rapids police Sgt. Mike Wallerstedt. “The judge said because it says leasee on the registration and leasee is not in the definition in the ordinance, we have to either send it to the company or fix our ordinance.”
The move comes as the future of traffic cameras in Cedar Rapids is in doubt. A judge banned issuing tickets from the cameras on Interstate 380, which issue 90 percent of all camera tickets. Cameras at Westbound speed cameras at First Avenue East and 10th Street also stopped issuing tickets effective April 25.
The other cameras at First and 10th and locations at First Avenue West and L Street and Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW remain active.
Cedar Rapids has appealed the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Traffic camera revenue has generated $3 million annually for the Cedar Rapids Police Department, but collections have become increasingly problematic.
Iowa outlawed using unpaid traffic camera tickets against a person’s credit score in 2015 knocking out the teeth behind traffic camera tickets. The tickets don’t count against a motorist’s driving record, and legal action was seen as not practical given the low dollar amount of each ticket.
While the city has contracted a collection service, many people have simply opted not to pay.
Outstanding debt grew nearly three times in two years from $6.3 million in September 2015 to the $17.1 million reported on Tuesday. Last fiscal year alone, Cedar Rapids issued 135,835 tickets of which 59,518 weren’t paid.
Cedar Rapids has been exploring the offset program since at least 2015.
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Cities have been able to use the state offset program to collect debt since 2006 and more than 200 cities participate. An agency spokesman had warned the program could have limited effect in collecting from out-of-state drivers, which account for about 35 percent of tickets issued.
The offset program charges $7 each time they hold money to pay off a debt, according to Cedar Rapids spokeswoman Maria Johnson.
Drew said letters would be mailed out warning if unpaid tickets aren’t paid by a certain date violators would face a 25-percent penalty upcharge.
The ordinance change needs to be voted on twice more, possibly at the Sept. 25 meeting, before being formally adopted.
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