Rest easy, Aurora. Your time in front of the camera is over.
It’s been more than 13 months since Aurora ended its consistently contested photo red light program, which fined motorists caught blasting through several of the city’s busiest intersections.
But just how the absence of the cameras has affected Aurora residents and city coffers in recent months depends largely on whom you ask. While more than two-thirds of voters agreed to nix the cameras in November 2018, officials have indicated the lack of revenue the devices generated will likely result in fewer services for the city’s neediest and most delicate populations.
For years, the cameras annually added more than $1 million to various social service causes in the city, including specialized court programs, victims services and homeless shelters.
Now, the city is working to plug the holes left by the photo red light deficits.
Aurora City Council Members on Feb. 10 allocated some $600,000 from the city’s ticket surcharge revenue to several mental health and homeless service providers in the city. That’s a roughly $63,000 decrease from what the programs requested. The difference is largely due to a lack of photo-red-light funding.
To alleviate the cost burden, the city completely nixed funding a pilot program started in 2012 intended to curb people calling Aurora Police to receive treatment for mental health issues. The city also elected to redistribute about $56,000 it was previously granting to the Stride Community Health Network, formerly known as the Metro Community Provider Network. That eliminated a nurse practitioner previously working the Aurora Community Outreach Team, which is activated to help the city’s homeless population on nights when the temperature dips below freezing. The city moved an EMT from Aurora Fire Rescue onto the outreach team to cover the cut.
For the past year, those programs have been pulling many of their city funds from a $680,000 pot of 2016 marijuana tax revenues. City council pre-emptively allocated the savings to bridge the budgetary fissure following the cessation of photo red light in late 2018. The pot fund was dinged some $350,000 last year, with another $150,000 expected to be used in 2020, according to city budget documents. Once the marijuana funds are exhausted, many service providers will be facing 30 to 40 percent reductions in city funding.
To stem the shearing, city staffers have continued to tinker with the general fund.
“The reduction of (photo red light) revenue results in some budget cuts and significant additional (sic) to the General Fund,” city staffers wrote in an April memo.
Deputy City Manager Jason Batchelor said about $800,000 previously allocated to various service providers has been shifted to the general fund since voters pulled the plug on the traffic cameras. That’s money that is now being steered away from other city projects and services.
“That’s $800,000 that’s not available for other general fund needs,” Batchelor said.
The Comitis Crisis Center, Gateway Domestic Violence Services, Sungate Kids and a pair of programs offered by Aurora Mental Health all received fewer dollars this year due to the lack of photo red light revenue, according to city documents.
And while all of those providers said they would endeavor to provide the same services despite receiving less money, officials indicated future cuts could be disastrous.
“Gateway does not have the cash flow to backfill cuts from the Nexus Program,” James Gillespie, executive director of Gateway Domestic Violence Services, wrote to the city in his annual grant request.
City Council Members christened Aurora’s so-called Nexus grant program in 2006 with the goal of providing more money to service providers with a “nexus to law enforcement,” according to city documents.
Still, Gillespie said staff would find ways to pick up the slack.
“Like any other grants that may be reduced at any given time, Gateway will work that much harder to fill in any financial gaps so that the Aurora Police Department and the City of Aurora receive 24/7 access to quality, domestic violence-specific services without interruption,” he wrote.
Sungate Kids, an Englewood-based group that provides resources for abused children, also said a continued lapse in city funding would prove difficult moving forward.
“A budget cut, particularly one of a 30 percent magnitude, would be devastating for us,” Diana Goldberg, executive director of Englewood-based Sungate Kids, wrote in her annual application for city funding. “Sungate Kids is a lean operation … A cut would either mean that we would have to cut back on services to our community or we would have to ask our staff to take the hit.”
More than half of Sungate’s clients come from Aurora, according to city documents. The organization is slated to receive $51,620 in 2020. That’s a loss of $6,380 compared to 2019.
The city funding only comprises some 5 percent of Sungate’s overall budget, according to city documents, though additional trims could be on the way in the coming years, according to Shelley McKittrick, homelessness program director with the city.
“We really hope these cuts haven’t put any excess burden on our partners and we’ll be talking with them to move forward in the future,” she said.
McKittrick anticipates that the city will have about $500,000 to spend on the Nexus programs in 2021 and $400,000 by 2023. In 2017, the same service providers received more than double that total.
“You go from $850,000 of awards to $500,000 in a three-year period, that’s pretty significant,” Batchelor said. “ … A 40-percent cut in funding from the city I think is not without impact.”
The city’s teen and wellness court programs, municipal court victim services and youth outreach are all also slated to receive less money in the coming years due to the changes, though court surcharges and future grants will largely fill in the gaps, according to city documents.
Among the other city programs affected by the budgetary rejiggering prompted by the loss of photo red light revenues is Aurora’s Gang Reduction Impact Program, which provides programs and services to young people in gangs or at risk of becoming involved with such groups. Funding for the program dropped from about $300,000 in 2018 to $70,000 this year, according to city budget documents. The bulk of that remaining funding will go toward Centennial’s Juvenile Assessment Center, a nonprofit group that aims to keep children out of the juvenile justice system.
That slash comes following a spate of shootings involving children and teens, many of whom have ties to gangs. Three 19-year-old men and another unidentified person were involved in a triple shooting less than a mile from the Aurora Municipal Center one morning this week. All four people involved were treated for injuries, according to Aurora police.
“I know Aurora government hates this, but it is the truth: there is a growing gang issue in Aurora, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said. “And when I say growing, I don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a gang issue in Aurora, but … it seems like it’s becoming far more active and far more violent.”
Jason McBride, a program assistant with the Gang Rescue and Support Project in Denver, lamented the need to clip the wings of Aurora’s gang prevention group, often referred to as A-GRIP.
“It’s gone now,” McBride, a Smoky Hill High School alumnus who used to affiliate with area gangs in the early 1990s, said of A-GRIP. “So how serious are we about combatting this problem? Not very. It’s a lot of lip service.”
Several former Aurora City Council Members warned voters of the consequences that could follow an elimination of photo red light cameras in the city, including Republican Bob Roth of Ward V and former Republican Charlie Richardson of Ward IV.
“These programs are vital,” Roth told The Denver Post following the election outcome in 2018. “People didn’t understand some of the significance of what this meant.”
Earlier in 2018, council members agreed to amend their own ballot question to clarify where the money generated by photo red light revenues was going. The measure still lost by more than 40,000 votes.
Richardson, who initiated the ballot language clarification, said he was prompted to clean up the verbiage after he polled attendees of a ward meeting about their support of the program.
“I did a survey almost a year back saying how many support photo-red radar and there was about 30 people, one raised their hand,” Richardson told The Sentinel prior to the election. “I named off the agencies that are beneficiaries… and it pretty much flipped the same crowd.”
Even if the program had remained intact, city staffers indicated ticket revenues generated by the cameras were slouching due to tardy payments.
“Despite gradual increases year-to-year in the number of summonses issued, the program has seen declining revenue as offenders have not been paying the fine associated with the violation,” staffers wrote in 2016.
The cameras consecutively netted less money every year from 2012 to 2017, according to revenue reports. That was the result of myriad factors, according to Jackie Ehmann, budget and finance manager with the city.
“People got used to where the lights were, there were less photo red light pictures being taken, and a lot of people were fighting the tickets,” Ehmann said. “There were a variety of reasons why the photo red light money went down.”
Outside of the confines of the city budget office, the 10 intersections that were previously equipped with 14 unique photo red light cameras have gone 409 days without a flash bulb catching an impatient motorist stealing through an intersection.
In that time, Aurora police have not seen a noticeable change in crash statistics across the city, according to Jad Lanigan, commander of the police department’s traffic section.
“By taking them out, it hasn’t really increased our traffic accidents,” Lanigan said. “ … Overall I think our numbers have stayed pretty stagnant in terms of accidents for at least the past five years.”
Citywide, traffic accidents have stayed relatively flat over the course of the past four years, with 13,846 such reported incidents in 2016 and 13,852 incidents last year. The totals dipped to 13,360 in 2017.
For years, Aurora police claimed the red light cameras helped deter the worst kinds of crashes — broadside collisions — in the city. By and large, it worked. Though overall collisions at the photo-equipped intersections generally increased over the years, the fraction of cataclysmic T-bone crashes generally decreased, Lanigan said.
“Statistically we showed that it decreased those types of accidents,” he said. “Of course, people would say that, statistically, it increased rear-end accidents. At the beginning I think it did increase rear-end accounts, but over time those started to decline.”
Police have stopped extracting detailed collision data at the former photo red light intersections, so comparative statistics are not available, Lanigan said. While the police department was generally in favor of the cameras, he said keeping such data would be moot as the devices are gone due to the electorate’s collective decision.
“I was always in favor and the police department was always in favor of the photo red light cameras because we believed that they benefited traffic safety in the city,” he said. “I think it helped, but the voters ultimately voted it down.”
Aurora police did not take a formal position on the ballot question that eventually killed the photo red light program in the city.
In the meantime, the lack of camera oversight in Aurora means local police will have to work that much harder to track drivers who steal through intersections, according to Lanigan.
“We still have the same amount of traffic officers and police officers as we did when we had the cameras, so we’ll go out and try to do enforcement at the intersections, but by no means is it the same level of enforcement that the cameras were doing,” Lanigan said. “Since we’ve taken those cameras down, we’ve not added anybody to the traffic bureau to go out and do more enforcement at those intersections. It comes out to the fact that the men and women who were already doing the job now have the added job of patrolling those intersections more.”
Several cops and a pair of civilian police workers who were previously tasked with monitoring photo red light enforcement in the city have since been reassigned to fill other vacancies in the department, according to city documents.
The municipal ballot question that signaled the death knell of photo red light cameras was broad and all-encompassing, Lanigan said, effectively striking any possibility of implementing other photo-enabled traffic devices, such as unmanned radar units, in the foreseeable future.
“There’s all kinds of photo stuff out there — you name it, it’s out there,” he said.
Lanigan said he’s been approached by vendors of various photo detection devices, but had to tell them that there’s effectively a moratorium on such instruments in the city.
“A lot of it would be off the table,” he said. “The voters voted it down, and they don’t want it, so that’s kind of where we’re at.”
At least three people, including one pedestrian, have been killed in traffic incidents in Aurora so far this year. More than 30 people were killed in such incidents in the city last year.