Our Opinion | Red-light ripoff: Greenville flouts court on cameras

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Greenville city leaders are gambling with taxpayer money, and their gutsy bet on red-light camera systems is one a responsible government wouldn’t make.

Here’s the wager: A state law authorizing the city to install automated red-light cameras allows Greenville to shortchange public schools in violation of the North Carolina Constitution.

Pitt County Schools receives $69.15 from each $100 fine collected and pays the city of Greenville $6,250 each month for a police officer’s services in reviewing red light camera footage and issuing tickets, The Daily Reflector reported this week. American Traffic Solutions, the company that installed the traffic cams, takes a cut of $31.85 per ticket.

A unanimous three-judge N.C. Court of Appeals panel ruled in the 2006 case Shavitz v. City of High Point that cities must pay 90 percent of red-light camera ticket proceeds to local schools.

Judges applied Article IX, Section 7 of the N.C. Constitution, which states that the “clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected”...”shall be faithfully appropriated and used for maintaining free public schools.”

The 90 percent figure is derived from previous court precedent defining the term “clear proceeds.”

“The court rejected the city’s argument that because its costs, including payments to the contractors who implemented the program, greatly exceeded 10 percent, it should be allowed to keep a higher percentage of the proceeds,” UNC School of Government research fellow Ingrid M. Johansen wrote in a synopsis of the case. “The (constitution) only authorizes holding back the actual costs of collecting the proceeds, not the costs of implementing or enforcing the program.”

City of Greenville spokesman Brock Letchworth responded to a Times inquiry about compliance with the Shavitz decision by writing that “the law has changed since that time to allow cities to enter into interlocal agreements with school boards.”

While it’s true that a 2016 North Carolina statute authorizes a handful of municipalities to install red-light cameras and allows Greenville to “enter into an interlocal agreement necessary and proper to effectuate the purpose and intent” of the law, we disagree with the city’s determination that it’s found a loophole.

Neither the state statute nor the agreement between Greenville and Pitt County Schools supersedes the Shavitz precedent, which has stood undisturbed for 12 years. Officials in North Carolina’s largest city say municipalities that implement traffic camera systems are bound to follow it.

Charlotte is one of the seven cities named in the 2016 traffic camera law, and City Manager Marcus Jones advised his city council against installing red-light robocams this week, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Charlotte did away with its cameras after the Shavitz ruling because it otherwise would have had to pay camera operators out of pocket.

“At the time, the city said it couldn’t afford to pay the Florida contractor that managed the program if it had to give almost all of the money to (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools),” the Observer’s Steve Harrison wrote. “The city said it would have had to spend money from its general fund.”

Greenville is gambling on the proposition that it’s OK to rip off the school system in violation of the state constitution as long as Pitt County Schools is willing to settle for less than its due.

Sorry, that’s not how the law works. A contract can’t override the North Carolina Constitution.

Greenville is already embroiled in litigation over the controversial cameras. William Kozel is suing the city, the school board and state officials, arguing yellow light intervals are too short and that the program is violating state and federal law.

Defendants can delay the inevitable, but so long as the Shavitz ruling stands, it’s difficult to imagine an outcome that allows Greenville to leave its cameras in place without making up the difference between the 69 percent of proceeds earmarked for Pitt County Schools and the 90 percent the school district must receive.

For a cash-strapped public school district, the revenue may well seem like pennies from heaven. School officials likely think it’s best not to look a gift horse in the mouth. But it was never up to Pitt County Schools to decide how much revenue it’s willing to accept. The state constitution settles the matter.

Love them or hate them, red-light camera systems can be operated legally. North Carolina courts have explicitly spelled out the rules.

Charlotte understands that cities have to follow them. Why does Greenville think otherwise?