As Brandon Honig reported two weeks ago (see "News Updates" in the October 30 -- November 5 issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly), by an eight-to-Eagleton vote, the Tulsa City Council tabled the District 7 councilor's plan to allocate surplus money in the 2006 Third Penny sales tax fund to pay for an electronic citation system known as E-Tickets.
So the proposal remains in limbo, an all-too-common fate for good ideas for government efficiency. No matter how much common sense a proposal may have behind it, there's always a bureaucratic obstacle to overcome.
E-Tickets would replace the current system, which involves pen, paper and carbon copies. This old-fashioned, manual process is slow, highly error-prone and expensive. An estimated one in four tickets is issued in vain, either lost or useless because of illegible handwriting or erroneous and incomplete information.
An officer can complete and transmit an E-Ticket in a fraction of the time required to fill out a paper ticket, allowing him to get back to the task of traffic enforcement. Instant error checking can insure that the information is consistent and complete. Once a ticket is in the system, it never has to be handled again.
As Brian Ervin reported in 2007 (see "Safer Streets with E-Tickets?" online at urbantulsa.com), a single paper citation takes about 20 minutes of an officer's time, with additional tickets taking another 5 minutes each. By comparison, an electronic citation requires about eight minutes, with an additional minute for each additional citation for a stopped driver. The driver who was in too much of a hurry is soon back on his way, and the officer can return to handling calls and deterring crime.
The E-Ticket system makes a traffic officer at least two-and-a-half times more productive.
According Officer Will Dalsing of the Tulsa Police Department's Crime Analysis, Planning, Evaluation and Research estimated that electronic tickets would increase officer availability by 70 percent and reduce costs related to citations by 70 percent.
While the Council is supportive of E-Ticket implementation, there is still the matter of funding. Computer and vehicle purchases approved as part of the 2006 Third Penny "capital equipment replacement" line item have been coming in under budget, thanks to the ever-declining cost of technology and the desperation of auto manufacturers. Eagleton proposed allocating $400,000 from those savings to the electronic citation system.
The proposal to re-budget Third Penny money included both the E-Ticket system and a $1.2 million electronic time and attendance system that would replace the inefficient system of paper timecards and clock punching. This system, too, should pay for itself in savings.
The proposal to reallocate Third Penny capital equipment money would have had no effect on the money allocated for streets, bridges, parks, or any other project. Still, other councilors objected to committing any funds from the 2006 fund until all projects were fully funded. While capital equipment has been coming for less than the projected costs, there's a possibility that other projects will be more expensive than expected.
Fair enough, but most of the same councilors had already voted in favor of a similar reallocation. This February, the Council unanimously approved moving $4,420,000 of the 2006 fund to a new project: "City Hall Relocation and Operations Consolidation." The money came from "Citywide Public Facilities Renovations & Facilities Capital Replacement" and "Energy Efficiency Facility Improvements."
On that same night, the Council grabbed $35,000 from the 2001 Third Penny fund, $480,000 from the 1996 Third Penny fund, and $1,000,000 from the 1991 Third Penny fund.
The City Council learned recently that the City has $135 million in leftover funds from expired sales tax programs and bond issues. The Council is in the process of reviewing every project from those old funding packages to determine whether the project is complete, how much money remains, whether the money is encumbered.
If it's worth spending some of that money on luxurious new digs for city government, surely it's worth spending some of it on a electronic ticketing system that will save time, save lives, and save enough money to pay for itself many times over.
On average, each motorcycle officer generates $190,000 in fines. The cost with benefits of a first year patrol officer is $64,483.
In other words, every motorcycle traffic cop pays not only for himself, but for two other officers as well. By at least doubling an officer's productivity, E-Tickets would make it possible for every motorcycle officer to pay for himself and five other officers.
Surely the finance people at City Hall could figure a way to use some of those fines to replenish the capital funds for the cost of the system. If that could be managed, the question of where to get the money becomes moot.
The idea of self-funding traffic enforcement is a sticking point for many Tulsans, who think using traffic fines to fund law enforcement puts Tulsa on the level of notorious speed traps like Hulbert, Watts, and Stringtown. The level of outrage seems to be highest among those who have been recently ticketed for a moving violation.
When we get ticketed, we like to portray ourselves as innocents who just happened to be breaking the law for the first time in many years when the police officer happened to be there.
If we're honest with ourselves, the longer it's been since our last ticket, the more careless we get, pushing our speed over the limit, not coming to a complete stop, and hitting the gas pedal at yellow (or even orangeish) lights. Most of the time we don't hurt ourselves or anyone else, and we don't get caught.
But sometimes the result is property damage, injury, permanent maiming, or death.
Traffic stops not only prevent accidents by making all of us more careful, they can also lead to the apprehension of those who are wanted on more serious charges.
As part of our city's overall crime prevention and public safety strategy, we need more officers patrolling the streets. We need a system that is thorough enough to act as a deterrent to careless driving.
If an officer who isn't specifically assigned to traffic duty happens to see a traffic violation, he needs to know that he can deal with it quickly, without impeding his other responsibilities.
According to MGT of America's manpower study, released this August, Tulsa has only 13 motorcycle officers trying to cover 152 miles of expressway. That's more freeway miles and fewer officers than every other peer city in the study. By comparison, Tucson, Arizona, has a 39-officer motorcycle patrol covering only 47 miles of expressway.
MGT recommended adding six additional traffic officers. Even under the current paper-based ticketing system, the new officers would more than pay for themselves.
No one is talking about using traffic fines as a way of funding street repairs or park maintenance. No one is going to put traffic officers on a quota system. Given how careless we all tend to be, there are plenty of serious offenses worthy of fining. All we're talking about is traffic fines covering the cost of traffic enforcement. That's reasonable.
E-Tickets have been in the works for a long time. The money is there. Let's get it done, councilors.
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