Editorial: Speed cameras are symptom of larger problem

2012-09-28T00:15:00Z 2013-03-06T19:23:37Z Editorial: Speed cameras are symptom of larger problemBy the Editorial Board stltoday.com
September 28, 2012 12:15 am  • 

St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch calls the proliferation of speed cameras in municipalities along major highways a "gotcha" game. He's absolutely right.

Most of the cities along Interstates 70 and 170 that use the speed cameras do so not to improve safety in their communities but to raise revenue from unsuspecting motorists. The leaders of Charlack and Vinita Park, for instance, have a revenue problem. The speed cameras provide a simple, if highly annoying and constitutionally suspect, solution.

Mr. Fitch has proposed asking voters to change the county charter to ban such cameras in municipalities. That would fix only a symptom, not the disease.

That problem is that St. Louis County doesn't need 90 municipalities. Many of those cities, even if they continue to exist, don't need their own police forces. They can't afford them. They sometimes hire inexperienced, unqualified cops. Their leaders waste taxpayer dollars to perpetuate their own fiefdoms and then turn to technology to keep the money flowing.

Mr. Fitch should continue to work with the St. Louis County Municipal League and other county leaders to pass statewide legislation that would get to the root of the problem.

Admittedly, a charter change probably would pass. If the St. Louis County Council put a question on the ballot asking voters to ban the obnoxious cameras, voters would break all speed limits in the mad rush to the polls.

Anybody who has ever received such a ticket without being pulled over by a real, live police officer (we plead guilty) would vote no on those speed cameras without hitting the brakes.

But if the Charlacks of the county are starved of this revenue source, they'll simply look for the next one.

A better, more comprehensive and long-term solution would give voters more incentives to dissolve some of the county's municipalities, as the citizens of St. George did last year.

"If you enact a countywide ban, you throw the baby out with the bathwater without dealing with the larger issue," said Tim Fischesser, executive director of the county Municipal League. He's right.

In last spring's legislative session, the Municipal League backed House Bill 1891, sponsored by Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country. The bill would have created a list of minimal standards for cities in the county. Among the standards: a balanced budget, an annual audit, qualified police officers, regular trash collection, building codes and proper cash management.

If the city failed to meet these bare minimums, just 30 percent of the city's residents could petition a judge to examine the city's finances and its fitness as a municipality. If the judge agreed with the residents, experts from the Municipal League would help the city try to meet standards. If the standards couldn't be met, the clock would start ticking on disincorporating dysfunctional cities. The speed cameras would go away with them.

Mr. Fitch's proposal would be quicker, though given the number of Democratic political consultants being paid by the traffic camera companies these days, its chances for getting on the ballot are inversely proportional to the chances that an I-70 commuter can avoid a speeding ticket in his or her lifetime.

It would be a long shot.

Good for Mr. Fitch for raising the issue. St. Louis County leaders should band together and make sure some version of House Bill 1891 passes the Legislature next year.

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