Are Houston taxpayers on losing end of red light camera settlement?

January 23, 2012 4:47:36 PM PST
A multi-million dollar settlement with the city could finally put an end to the battle over red light cameras in Houston. But could taxpayers end up on the losing end of the deal?

The city has been fighting over this contract for more than a year and after digging through it, there was a real issue at hand over how much the city owed.

Here's how the settlement breaks down. All told the company will get a little more than $5 million. The city already has $2.3 million of it in the bank. But the rest -- more than $2.7 million -- still has to be collected.

If the settlement deal passes a City Council vote this week, the red light cameras will soon disappear. But so will a bunch of money from the city's bank account. On Monday, the mayor told us giving the red light camera company nearly $5 million to go away is worth it.

"They were claiming damages of $25 million. So a settlement for under $5 million is a good deal," said Mayor Annise Parker.

The camera company thinks so, too.

"I think it's in the interest of both sides to put this behind them, and let's move on," said George J. Hittner with American Traffic Solutions.

When those cameras were still on, all sorts of people were getting tickets they still haven't paid. The success of this settlement depends on people paying those tickets and that hasn't been easy to do.

"If I had an outstanding ticket, I wouldn't pay it," said Paul Kubosh, red light camera opponent.

Kubosh is a Houston traffic attorney who led the petition drive to get the cameras taken down. His advice to the 25,000 people who still have outstanding red light camera tickets: Do nothing.

"There's nothing they can do to enforce it," Kubosh said.

While that's not entirely true, the city is pretty limited, and if scofflaws don't pay up, Houston taxpayers could be on the hook for as much as $2.7 million in tax dollars.

"People don't have a choice to pay fines. They owe the city money and we will collect on the amounts owed," Mayor Parker said.

Let's hope. In the meantime, the guy who started this whole fight isn't done fighting, even after those cameras come down since a federal judge threw out the referendum.

"Have we stopped the cameras? No," said Kubosh. "Any subsequent mayor can come down here, and contract in the future to rape and pillage the citizens financially."

Since the red light camera program started in 2007, the cameras caught almost 934,000 people. There are still 277,000 unpaid tickets outstanding -- about 30 percent of the tickets. That's $26 million. So the city collects the fines at a 70 percent success rate. Eighty percent of the tickets are more than a year old and the city can't arrest you or hold your vehicle registration.