CEDAR RAPIDS — Only days before Christmas, Cedar Rapids this week sent out 221,000 notices warning people if they don’t pay their traffic camera citations — some up to seven years old — they will face a penalty and be turned over to a state debt collection program.
Mary McEniry, 46, of Cedar Rapids, thought the timing couldn’t be worse when she received notices for five unpaid tickets worth $525 with Christmas less than a week away. In recent years, she has dealt with a divorce and cancer, so she may have missed some bills but said she found a check receipt showing she’d paid at least one of the tickets.
“They are hoping for some year-end revenue from people who’d be scared by them, but I am not scared because what are they going to take from me?” she said, noting her grown children and ex-husband were using the car when all of the citations were issued.
Cedar Rapids authorized Municipal Collections of America, of Lansing, Ill., to issue the notices warning motorists with unpaid traffic camera citations to pay the original fine or face a 25 percent penalty, which would raise $75 tickets to $93.75.
In all, the initiative is targeting $17.3 million in unpaid tickets dating to when the automated traffic camera program launched in 2010.
This fall, the City Council authorized a new approach to collections: Take one last crack at a collection agency. If that doesn’t work, turn over unpaid tickets to the state offset program, which draws from gambling winnings, tax returns and other income funneled through state coffers to pay the debt.
“We feel what still is owed is due to the city and should be paid,” said Casey Drew, the finance director. “It’s fair to the people who’ve already paid their tickets for everyone else to pay.”
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He said the city does not believe a statute of limitations applies to these fines. It’s up in the air what recourse the city would have if people still don’t pay and don’t have any money coming through state coffers for the offset program to take, Drew said.
Collecting the fines long has been a struggle, and by 2016 only 55 percent were being paid.
After the Iowa Department of Transportation ordered speed cameras at two locations on Interstate 380 and another in town be shut down in 2015, and a separate legal settlement banned bad debt from traffic camera tickets being used as a black mark on credit scores, payments dropped even more.
In April, a Polk County District Court judge rejected a lawsuit from Cedar Rapids, Des Moines and Muscatine and stood behind the Iowa DOT order, which included letting two other I-380 cameras continue provided they move closer to the downtown S-curve. The cities have an appeal before the Iowa Supreme Court.
Cedar Rapids has stopped issuing tickets from its I-380 speed cameras and the speed portion of the westbound traffic camera at 10th Street and First Avenue SE, pending the outcome of the appeal.
Mike Telsrow, 57, of Oxford Junction, was among motorists confused when he received notices for unpaid speed camera citations.
When a collection agency called several weeks after Telsrow received the tickets, he told them, “I’m never going to pay because the cameras are illegal.”
The agency stopped calling, and he thought the matter was settled — until the other day.
“Once it was deemed illegal, I didn’t pay any more tickets,” said Sara Johnson, 31, of Cedar Rapids, another recipient of a notice.
Johnson said she is not yet sure if she will pay her ticket. Telsrow said he does plan to pay his, but hopes for a refund if the Iowa Supreme Court upholds the ruling.
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Maria Johnson, a spokeswoman for the city, said Cedar Rapids could net $7.4 million if all the tickets were paid before the 45-day window expires. Municipal Collections gets a 25 percent cut, and GATSO USA, the traffic camera vendor, gets $25 per ticket.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett deferred questions Tuesday to city staff and other City Council members.
Corbett was the lone vote against the new collection strategy, calling it “heavy handed.”
Council member Scott Olson said he spoke with a person Tuesday who’d just received six or seven notices in the mail. Olson, though, said he stands by the approach.
“Technically the city is not issuing any more tickets as per the request of the court, but before that those tickets are still valid unless there’s a court ruling that says they are not,” Olson said.
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