Red light cameras create new controversy

December 16, 2009 9:48:31 AM PST
There's a battle growing between the city and county and at the center are the controversial red light cameras. County officials had some harsh words for the mayor and city council. Houston Mayor Bill White said this issue has brought the city and county to its lowest point as far as its working relationship is concerned.

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Leo Vasquez read a scathing letter during the public session of city council today aimed directly at Mayor White and council members. He called them stubborn, urging them to sign the tax collection contract which they approved back in June or risk having that contract terminated.

For years, the City of Houston has paid Harris County $750,000 a year to collect property taxes. The new agreement calls for a $300,000 increase, which Vasquez says would level the playing field for the 65 other jurisdictions that pay the county for that service.

City Attorney Arturo Michel says the city isn't signing anything until the county agrees to abide by the terms of the contract -- an amendment that requires the county to get on board with the city's plan to withhold the vehicle registrations of drivers who refuse to pay their red light citations. Vasquez says these are two separate issues.

"I would have to raise the other jurisdictions' fees over $300,000 a year to make up for the City of Houston's shortfall, for them not carrying their weight," Vasquez said. "This mayor has consistently figured out how to use smoke and mirrors and put, in this case, their fair and legal share of the obligation onto other jurisdictions in Harris County."

"I don't really think this is an issue of blackmail," Michel said. "If the city doesn't receive any consideration, you can't have a contract in place. As a matter of law, it's not valid. We've had discussions with the county attorney and other people in the county since the beginning of this process. I think that part has been pretty clear."

Several Harris County commissioners are opposed to the idea of withholding the renewal of someone's vehicle registration, equating it to a money grab of sorts for the city. County commissioners have not taken a vote.


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