Unpopular revenue stream for Ohio inner-ring suburb: speed cameras

The AP has an interesting profile of how Elmwood Place, a small suburb adjacent to Cincinnati, became quite unpopular for its speed cameras.

Settled by German farmers and laborers who came up from Appalachian Kentucky, Elmwood Place was incorporated in 1890. Like many “inner-ring” American suburbs, it hit its peak many decades ago. Older residents recall bucolic times of moonlit concerts and tire swings hanging from backyard trees.

But outsourcing of blue-collar work made life tougher for many residents, and the village’s incomes and housing values fell well below statewide averages. Housing stock deteriorated to the point where you can buy a two-bedroom fixer-upper for less than $60,000.

When William Peskin joined the police force in 1998, there were nine officers. Now the police chief is the only full-time law enforcement officer left. He said concerns grew after accidents around the elementary school; village officials looked into traffic cameras and became convinced that they were the most practical way to make the village safer.

Cameras at the village limits and in the school zone dramatically curtailed speeding once citations started going out, Peskin said. From 20,000 speeders clocked in a two-week trial period last summer, the number soon dropped to a quarter of that.

Former county prosecutor Mike Allen filed a lawsuit against the town. Among the plaintiffs: the Rev. Chau Pham, who said church attendance dropped by a third after that Sunday when so many congregants — including him — were ticketed; David Downs, owner of St. Bernard Polishing for 25 years, who said long-time customers had vowed to shop elsewhere because they had been ticketed; and a Habitat for Humanity worker who was cited four times.

“Elmwood Place is engaging in nothing more than a high-tech game of three-card monte,” Judge Robert P. Ruehlman wrote March 7 in a colorful opinion that has heartened camera foes across the country. “It is a scam that the motorists can’t win.”

The judge said the village was on pace to assess $2 million in six months (the village’s annual budget is $1.3 million). Maryland-based Optotraffic, owner and operator of the photo enforcement system in return for 40 percent of revenue, had already reaped $500,000 in about four months.

While the larger article is more about the legality and popularity of speed cameras (and they seem to be quite reviled, even in light of arguments about safety), it hints at a larger issue: how can inner-ring suburbs raise enough revenue to keep their communities and local services going? We have hints elsewhere in the article that Elmwood Place is struggling. It has a limited population, the tickets stretch the budgets of residents who already don’t have much money, and the police force has dwindled. So, if we take safety and irritation over getting tickets out of the equation, what realistically can be done in this community? Outside of some unlikely large developer suddenly taking an interest, here are a few possible options: annexation into Cincinnati (which is rare these days – suburbs started resisting big city annexation starting in the late 1800s in the Northeast and Midwest) or outsourcing a number of key services (a few California communities have pursued this – see here and here – while some Chicago suburbs have turned over policing to county sheriffs).

More broadly, a number of American inner-ring suburbs face the issue of how to raise revenues in declining or struggling communities to provide basic services. This has led some to argue that we need more metropolitan revenue sharing so struggling suburbs or neighborhoods could benefit from wealthier regional municipalities.

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