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 a controversial and now obsolete speed camera ticketing system.
While speed camera ticketing was in full force throughout New Miami, village officials revved up spending by $1 million in 2013. Roughly $600,000 of that increased spending, however, went to a sanitation project funded through a state grant. Still, a chunk of that budget increase was the result of a windfall of revenues for the village, thanks to the speed camera money.
Money from the speed camera tickets gave the village, which has a population of 2,200 people a chance to have a steady source of revenue for the first time in years, council member Paul Stidham told the Journal-News.
“There’s only two ways to raise revenues: you’ve got the damn speed cameras, and you’ve got property taxes. (Raising property taxes) that’s not going to happen in New Miami. People just don’t pay their taxes in New Miami,” said Stidham, whose last day as a council member is today because he has taken an out-of-state job. “There was no money for tires, for gas, for oil changes on the vehicles. There was no money there.”
A year later, however, the source of revenue Stidham hoped would cure the village’s financial woes is no longer. A court order issued in February banned village officials from using the speed cameras, the village faces the prospect of paying back the speed camera ticket money pending a court ruling, and the council has slashed the 2014 budget by more than $825,000 compared to last year, village documents show. The village is slated to spend $1.7 million this year.
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The Journal-News reviewed budget expenditures for the village from 2011 to present, examined council meeting minutes during the last two years and requested salary data to piece together the finances of a village that has faced frequent political controversy during the last decade.
All told, the village collected $1.8 million from the speed tickets during the 15 months the cameras operated, according to village documents. Never during the last four years has village spending reached the level it did in 2013, the first and only time the speed cameras were in use for a full year.
The village spent nearly $210,000 that year on new cars, trucks and equipment for vehicles, including two 2013 Dodge Chargers for the police department, a 2013 Dodge Ram for the police, a snow plow and a 2014 Ford F- 250 truck for the street department, according to documents.
Stidham said necessary upgrades were made once ticket revenues poured in because the village rarely had enough money to buy new equipment or vehicles in the past. A dump truck, for example, that had a history of catching on fire, was finally replaced and some village vehicles were decades old, he said.
“When this money came in, yes, we got new or refurbished equipment,” Stidham said of the speed camera revenues. “We had never been able to do that for 20 years. We’ve had to upgrade a lot of that stuff — we kind of did it all at once because we had the speed camera (money) coming.”
Raises were also given to some employees, according to documents. The amount the village spent on pay for the treasurer and clerk, for example, nearly doubled that year to $28,000 total. A full-time staffer was also hired, Stidham said, to help enforce the village’s housing codes. Village council, in February of 2013, also voted to give $8,000 in reimbursements to five employees who paid out-of-pocket health insurance premiums, under the village’s plan, during 2012.
Overall, expenditures in the village’s general fund increased by roughly $430,000 from 2012 to 2013.
New Miami Mayor Patti Hanes declined to comment on the village’s financial history, and a source told the Journal-News that she has directed village officials not to speak with the media. Hanes referred all comments to Village Solicitor Dennis Adams who could not be reached for comment for this story.
In a split vote during July 2012, the village council initially nixed a proposal to install the speed cameras — just months after council members discussed annexing the New Miami Local Schools, which technically sits in St. Clair Twp., as a strategy to bring in more property tax revenues for the village. In August, the council unanimously passed the speed camera deal, under the premise that former Police Chief Kenny Cheek “cannot be available to police the streets at all times.”
Some agencies argue speed and red light cameras that catch drivers violating traffic laws are a safety tool that allows police officers to focus their efforts on more serious crimes, such as drug enforcement. But opponents of the cameras argue the systems don’t enhance safety and are simply cash grabs for municipalities and police agencies.
Stidham was one of the council members who initially voted against the speed cameras, but a month later changed his mind. As the cash-strapped village faced troubles, in part because of dwindling financial support from the state and ongoing problems with delinquent taxpayers, Stidham said he was swayed to vote for the speed cameras.
“I don’t like the cameras, but they were a necessary evil,” Stidham said. “I don’t think we spent too much (money), we spent just enough.”
Hanes declined to answer if the village has enough money to pay back those fined from the speed camera initiative, if ordered to do so by the court. Budget documents, current as of March 31, show the village has a cash balance of $1.68 million.
One village business and land owner James Hoskins said he had heard village officials spent money on raises and bonuses for employees using money from the speed camera tickets. He wishes village officials would have spent the extra cash on new alleys or roads, instead, throughout the village.
“This speed camera money, they spread that around like drunken sailors,” Hoskins, 74, said.