Speeders in the New Miami speed camera case want a financial watchdog appointed to make sure the village doesn’t go on any spending sprees, but records analyzed by the Journal-News show the village has been relatively thrifty in recent years.
FIRST REPORT: New Miami speeders want financial watchdog
The now defunct stationary speed camera program was approved by the village council on July 5, 2012, but banned in 2014 after retired Butler County Common Pleas Judge Michael Sage declared them unconstitutional. Revenues in the general fund — where ticket fines are collected — rocketed 416 percent from 2011 to 2013, but expenses jumped only 181 percent in that time frame, according to state audits reviewed by this newspaper.
The village general fund collected $323,168 in 2011 and receipts jumped to $1.66 million in 2013. Village spending grew from $272,967 to $768,667 in the same time frame.
A class of speeders that now number around 33,000 sued the village in 2013 and are expecting to collect about $3 million, plus $500,000 in interest — and counting. After the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the case for a second time, the speeders’ attorneys asked Butler County Common Pleas Judge Michael Oster to appoint a financial watchdog last week to safeguard whatever funds might be available to satisfy an as-yet-to-be-determined judgment in the case.
“(New) Miami has made no effort to establish reserves to pay the anticipated judgment, even though, as the court is aware from previous motions, New Miami has contracted with a new automated speed enforcement company and has a new stream of revenue,” plaintiff’s attorney Josh Engel wrote in the motion.
The financial watchdog “can oversee the village’s spending to assure that the assets from this new stream of revenue are not dissipated and remain available to satisfy the anticipated judgment,” according to the motion.
Engel and his co-counsel pointed to a 2014 Journal-News investigation that revealed New Miami officials spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading village cars, giving raises to employees and paying out-of-pocket health insurance expenses for employees using money from the now obsolete speed camera ticketing system.
The audit reports show ending general fund cash balances for the village were at a high of $1.66 million in 2013 — the only full year of operation under the old program — and has remained in the $1.3 million range since. Spending out of the general fund has remained pretty constant as well. It dipped about $100,000 in 2014, dropped down to $538,065 the next year.
The village deployed a new program in 2016, contracting with Blue Line Solutions of Athens, Tenn., at the end of January for use of hand-held speed cameras. At any given time a patrol vehicle, with an officer aiming the camera, can be seen tucked in between buildings on the main drag just at the point where the speed limit drops coming out of Hamilton to 35 mph, past the bridge on U.S. 127.
The village’s share of the virtually automatic $95 ticket is 65 percent, or $61.75. Under the old contract with Optotraffic out of Maryland, New Miami’s share was 60 percent.
Under the new program Village Fiscal Officer Belinda Ricketts says they have collected a total of $783,969. The audit reports show $866,569 but that amount is in a category that also includes licenses and permits. General fund spending for 2016 and last year was in the $700,000 range.
Village Solicitor Dennis Adams said the village recently passed the 2019 budget and the general fund cash balance is projected at $1.1 million, with a total unencumbered amount of $1.9 million. However, only the general fund monies can be spent on virtually anything — like a future lawsuit judgment — the remaining $800,000 are restricted, meaning they have to be spent on things for which they were intended, like trash collection related expenses, for example.
“Obviously the village hasn’t engaged in any spending that’s not normal and routine,” Adams said, adding they haven’t made any big purchases, like new vehicles, since 2014.
Engel, after looking at the audit numbers compiled by the Journal-News, said the $1.3 million cash balance listed at the end of last year proves the point a watchdog is needed, so the village doesn’t become insolvent and can both continue to operate as a village and repay speeders.
“We have always been willing to enter into a settlement that would permit the village to repay motorists over time,” Engel said. “The village has consistently taken the position it would rather continue to pay its attorneys than repay those who were fined under the scheme the court declared to be unconstitutional.”
To-date the village has paid $309,592 in attorneys fees — money paid out of pocket because insurance doesn’t cover this type of litigation.
Mayor Bob Henley said he has to leave all commenting to the attorneys now, but he told the Journal-News three years ago — when the cameras were off — the speed cameras were put in to nab traffic scofflaws, not dollars. In September 2015 he said there have been several fatal crashes on that stretch of Ohio 127 and while the cameras were rolling, not a single accident.
“We go on the study that said there was no accidents on that stretch of road during the time those cameras were activated,” Henley said. “That’s the way we’re looking at it. There were no accidents on that stretch of road and we had one just a few months ago where the two vehicles hit head-on in front of the trucking company. That’s actually a whole lot worse section of road than people realize.”
The village previously commissioned a safety study that showed there were 26 accidents on the road from 2009 to 2013. A two-day speed survey in March 2015 showed 7,217 drove under the 35 mph speed limit; 8,035 sped between 36 and 40 mph and 2,456 people drove between 41 and 45 mph. There were 433 people who drove 10 miles or more over the limit and three people drove 61 mph or faster.