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Photo radar funds debated in council

Posted on November 6, 2013 by Taber Times

Heavy-footed locals captured in the lenses of the town’s photo radar operations will have to wait to find out if their illicit speeds will help fund town projects or remain included under the administration of the police service.

Sparking a significant debate in council chambers at the Oct. 28 town council meeting, a resultant vote to retain the status quo was defeated by a count of 5-2. Coun.(s) Joe Strojwas and Jack Brewin were the only councillors to back the motion.

“For several years the town has used photo radar to try to slow people down,” said CAO Greg Birch, prior to the vote. “Some people will get a photo radar ticket and accept that and will slow down, and other people simply just get angry at photo radar, what are those guys doing, this is just a cash grab. That’s the crux of the problem that has originated.”

In the past, consideration had been given as to how to best allocate revenues and expenses associated with photo radar.

The radar system is operated by the Taber Police Service, and the police use it to dissuade speeders by placing units in playground and school zones, on highways, and in areas where the service receives complaints.

“At a recent meeting, the police commission talked about this, and said we are not really using this as a money source, but people see it that way because it’s part of our budget,” said Birch.

“We have a large income stream from photo radar, and we have an expense stream, also related to photo radar. People might point the finger at us and say we use this to buy whatever we buy, and it’s just a tax grab.”

The public views photo radar as a source of revenue for the police service, and the Taber Municipal Police Commission is concerned that there is the perception the police use photo radar to raise revenues.

“At their meeting, the police commission passed a motion saying why doesn’t council take this money and just have it set up outside of the police budget. So instead of it showing up as a revenue source within the budget, it would be shown as a town revenue source,” said Birch.

At the police commission’s Oct. 16 meeting, the issue was discussed and a motion passed recommending council use fine revenues related to photo radar, along with associated photo radar expenses, be moved to general municipal revenues and expenses rather than be recognized in the police budget, with the additional recommendation these revenues be used for special projects within the Town of Taber.

“Of course, that means that they will have a lower revenue stream,” said Birch.

“You can look at this as just moving money around, or robbing from Peter to pay Paul, of shuffling a shell game — in the end, the police service has certain revenue sources, and in the end the police service operates at a deficit, they do not raise enough money to cover themselves, and so the town subsidizes them. If you take this revenue source, then presumably you have to offset that revenue in the budget.”

According to administration, commission members thought changing the allocation of the revenues and expenses associated with photo radar would help clarify the Taber Police Service is not using photo radar as a source of revenue.

Using net photo radar revenues for public projects, with the source of revenue publicly recognized, the community could see obvious benefits of photo radar revenues rather than seeing photo radar as simply a police service revenue source.

“In any case, they’re saying why don’t you increase your budget by taking photo radar revenues and transferring us some more money,” said Birch. “This will make it clear to the public that we are not using photo radar as a cash grab. So that’s even more clear, what would happen if you used that money to fund projects, such as the skateboard park. It would again appease perhaps this concept that photo radar is just a tax grab to get money for the police force. We’re going to build things with this stuff.”

Administration noted that in discussing the police commission recommendation, council should be aware that photo radar revenues do help cover policing costs, and removing this net revenue from the police commission’s budget would require a higher level of funding from other municipal taxes.

Coun. Joe Strojwas came out in immediate opposition to the idea, suggesting the change would only be one of optics for the eyes of the public, and could come to reflect badly on the Town of Taber.

“I can’t see the town would want to open up this can of worms, with the way we collect this type of revenue. I think we’re going down a path here — it’s traditional that these funds have always been part of the police department, why would we want to take this onus upon ourselves? People can say the town is using it as a tax grab now. I can’t support this type of recommendation at all. I just think it’s wrong — it should be left right there.”

Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux echoed Coun. Strojwas’ comments, pointing out the idea was only one of semantics.

“I think what this is to me is just making photo radar revenue more palatable to the public. It’s a question of semantics. If we’re going to shortfall the police, I think we should just leave it where it is. It’s not broken really, except in the eye of the beholder.”

While admitting he would be amenable to either viewpoint, Mayor Henk DeVlieger did not want to see the decision end up costing the town more as an additional capital expense.

“I’m pretty down to earth, but I wouldn’t like in the end to see it costing us more money. So we really have to think about it, that in allocating it different, that all of a sudden we’re not going to put ourselves in a pinch. We really have to consider that before we make a decision.”

While admittedly a matter of semantics, Coun. Randy Sparks argued that in this case, it makes sense.

“Being on the police commission, and as we discussed this, this sounded like a very good idea. Yes it may be semantics, and yes it may be shuttling shells, but if you want transparency in budgets, what better way? Then you know exactly what your policing is costing you, without this revenue here. You know exactly what the deal is.”

Money manager Dale Culler, director of corporate services, was primarily concerned from a budgeting standpoint of whether any decision would be a re-allocation of funds, or a boost in capital expenditures.

“Fine revenues are handled a lot of different ways with municipalities in the province. Officially, fine revenues belong to the town as a whole, so it can go into general revenues, the same place that taxes go. It’s just traditionally, the town has applied all of the fines that are collected through policing, to be recorded in a police function. But those fines have funded operations, and it was just identified that they would fund policing. If the police commission would just like those funds to be in general revenues, that’s fine. Really, my question in preparing the budget is if we’re going to put the money aside — and that’s actually a good way to do it — we just need to know whether it’s additional capital contributions.”

Culler went on to note that out of an annual police budget of just over $2 million, annual photo radar revenues represent an estimated $200,000 to $300,000.

Looking at the issue from a more global perspective, Coun. Sparks warned the province might be considering allocating a portion of municipal photo radar fine revenue from themselves.

“The province is taking a very serious look at fine revenues from photo radar, because they can see that there is some cash available there. They’re taking a very serious look at wanting a piece of that pie. If we can show the provincial government that we’re not just totally funding policing with this, that we’re doing something good with this money, may be a positive thing also. Because there are some municipalities whose fine revenue from photo radar are huge, and the province is thinking they should get a piece of this action. So we need to very aware of that also, that this is what is going on the province.”

Following the motion previously defeated, Coun. Ross-Giroux suggested tabling a decision on the matter to a later meeting.

“I would like to think further on this, as to whether I agree with Mr. Culler on the specific capital projects. I think if we decide to go this way and just roll it into general revenue, it would be more favourable that just specifically putting it somewhere else.”

The motion was carried by a vote of 5-2. Coun.(s) Strojwas and Brewin opposed the motion.

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