Government

Cedar Rapids ends controversial traffic camera collection effort

Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Traffic flows under the automated traffic cameras on I-380 northbound near J Avenue NE as seen in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids quietly discontinued a controversial collection initiative in which people owing money for unpaid automated traffic camera tickets had their debt turned over to the state, which in turn withheld their state income tax returns.

The city halted the initiative, which tapped into the Iowa Department of Administrative Services income offset program, months ago in the aftermath of an Iowa Supreme Court ruling. The city appeared to acknowledge the change for the first time publicly in response to a question during a fiscal 2020 budget workshop on Feb. 5.

“We’ve halted those since we had the Supreme Court ruling,” Casey Drew, Cedar Rapids finance director, said at the time. “We halted collections of that to the offset program at this point in time.”

The city later elaborated to specify all “proactive collection efforts” through the offset program and collection agencies were suspended on Sept. 4.

“Interactions with debtors that were in progress at that time were completed, and the only other interactions that have occurred since then were those initiated by debtors,” Drew said in an email sent by city spokesperson Maria Johnson.

Changes were prompted by two separate rulings in a class action case of Myron Behm et al vs. the city of Cedar Rapids and Gatso USA, the city’s traffic camera vendor from Beverly, Mass.

The ruling raised doubt about collecting on unpaid tickets through the offset program or otherwise because the city’s process sidestepped a state requirement for a municipal infraction process to determine liability before a judge. The city had been finding people who ignored tickets guilty by default.

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“Like the ordinance, the Iowa statutory provision does not provide for any liability to arise until the city takes the affirmative step of filing an enforcement action in district court and obtains a judgment against the defendant,” the court wrote on Jan. 25.

On Thursday, Iowa City attorney James Larew, who’s been behind several traffic camera lawsuits against the city of Cedar Rapids, including the Behm case, filed a petition for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in another class action — Simon Conway et al vs. the city of Cedar Rapids and Municipal Collections of America — seeking refunds for people who’d paid under the city’s December 2017 collection initiative.

This was based on the language in the Behm ruling. It’s not clear to how many people the class action would apply.

The city generated nearly $4 million from its collection initiative launched in December 2017. This includes $3.1 million from 35,000 tickets collected from the offset program and $586,000 from 7,700 tickets collected through a collection agency, which was a preliminary effort before turning the debt over to the state, Drew said in the email.

The city reported 221,000 unpaid citations dating back to 2010 worth $17 million when officials launched the collection initiative. Drew said approximately 177,000 unpaid tickets worth $14 million remain.

The collection initiative generated backlash on a couple of fronts. Some questioned the fairness of withholding a tax return over small-dollar tickets. Some had moved since receiving their ticket and said they never received the final notice to pay. Meanwhile, launching the program days before Christmas infuriated some state lawmakers already weighing a ban on traffic cameras.

Cedar Rapids had the most robust and lucrative traffic camera program in the state, but the busiest cameras on Interstate 380 have been off since a court ruling in 2017. City officials have built a budget for fiscal 2020, which begins on July 1, forecasting $4.7 million from the cameras to help pay for 10 new police officers.

The city has not set a date for restarting the cameras but has disclosed plans to establish a municipal infraction process in conjunction with the cameras’ return.

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Collection methods have been just one aspect of criticism over the fairness of traffic cameras, which some believe are just a cash cow. Cedar Rapids police say the cameras make roads safer and help patrol the I-380 S-curve, a curvy stretch of road that is nearly impossible for police to safely enforce traffic.

Courts have mostly sided with Cedar Rapids when it comes to legality, but justices have also raised critical questions that have forced the city to pivot. Iowa lawmakers continue to debate whether to ban traffic cameras, regulate them or continue to leave them largely unaddressed in Iowa Code.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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