Inevitably, we are all focused this week on the myriad reasons we don’t trust government. The horror show unfolding, pre-inauguration, in Washington. The endless shame of our state government in Springfield.
But as small-town publishers, we’ve most always been able to point with pride to our hometowns where local volunteer elected officials do a lot of good work, sometimes screw up, but at least in the towns we cover, are rarely venal.
The current and local exception to this good-government record would be the scourge and the scam of red-light cameras. As our reporting last week and again this week demonstrates, these devices accomplish absolutely none of the public safety goals attributed to them, but are instead an egregious hidden tax levied by governments hungry for cash — and are also a source of greedy profits for small firms with deep and disturbing political connections.
We focused our attention on Harlem Avenue from River Forest’s North Avenue down through Forest Park and into North Riverside and Berwyn’s Cermak Road. The fines levied through these few pernicious cameras have totaled $26.5 million since the beginning of 2014.
River Forest, North Riverside and Berwyn are the jackpot communities in our analysis, with Forest Park looking like it negotiated a weak contract. River Forest, with cameras at North Avenue and at Lake Street on Harlem, has issued $5.2 million in tickets while North Riverside and Berwyn combined to issue more than $20.7 million in violations to hapless drivers.
To their credit, the villages of Riverside, Brookfield and Oak Park have never seriously contemplated installing red-light cameras. They raise their tax loads the old-fashioned way, through property taxes and fees.
Why are these cameras such a stick-in-the-eye to decent drivers working hard to pay their legitimate taxes? So many reasons. First 90-plus percent of all of these cool hundred-dollar tickets go to drivers turning right on red.
The cameras aren’t rightly punishing red-light blowers. They are fining divers who do not come to an absolute full-stop and then turn right. There is little to no danger created in this action.
Towns that had no plans to fix their infrastructure or meet their pension obligations have turned to the lucre from these cameras to stuff the holes in their budgets. There are other ways, more direct and more honest, for municipalities to meet their obligations.
Finally, as we document this week, the handful of firms that offer this service are pumping political contributions into the coffers of local and state pols who have helped them gain necessary approvals for these lights. Simply bad news.
This is a local government rip-off, plain and simple. Voters upset at these kinds of programs do have recourse. They can get enough signatures on a petition to put the matter to a binding vote at the polls.
That way, they can send the message loud and clear on red-light cameras.