Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rolling Tax Farms

If the recent chatter is any indication, public opinion is slowly shifting against the proliferation of municipal traffic enforcement cameras. I'm still waiting to see it emerge as a major political issue the way Oyster has been predicting, however.

Meanwhile, the practice itself appears to be expanding... and even going mobile.

METAIRIE, La. -- There's an eye in the sky that you may not know about: Cameras have now been installed on Jefferson Parish School Buses.

But one woman is fighting an expensive traffic ticket she got for allegedly passing a school bus while its stop signs were extended.

Casey Gonzalez received the ticket in the mail on March 31, for "passing a school bus while the stop arm was engaged." The back of the ticket directed her to a Web site called www.alertbus.com.

When she typed in the citation number and driver's license number, she saw footage of the infraction from four different angles, all shot from a Jefferson Parish School Bus.

That's when Gonzalez realized when the video was shot.

"January 22nd, about 3 p.m. I was on my way to an appointment on the east bank," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez claimed she never saw the bus, but the fine on the ticket sure stood out to her.

"Never did I imagine it was going to be $400. That's like a car note," she said. "There is an early pay discount. I think it's $300 if you pay within 30 days of the citation, but we received it in the mail 60 days after it happened."

We already know the decision to take to the roads these days is increasingly laden with potential for unpleasant encounters with the law enforcement infrastructure (human or otherwise). But, increasingly, this is becoming about more than just law enforcement. It's also a booming business.

WDSU went online and found out the Alert Bus program is run by a locally owned company called OnGo Live. According to its Web site, the company "specializes in the custom installation of portable security technology, providing continuous real-time live audio and video transmission."

The owners wouldn't talk with WDSU, instead referring to the Jefferson Parish School Board, which hired them.

"We've had a couple of close calls where students had been hit -- not severely injured, but we just saw a pattern, that was starting to increase," said school spokesman Jeff Nowakowski. "And we said there's got to be another way to keep the kids safe."

Nowakowski said cameras have been inside school buses for years, but this new system is better because it's wireless and live.

Of the 222 school buses in Jefferson Parish, only 12 percent have these traffic cameras. And since they were originally installed in March 2008, 1,275 tickets have been sent out.

Sixty percent of the revenue goes to OnGo Live, 20 percent goes to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Department and 20 percent goes to Jefferson Parish schools.

Another time we'll have to have a conversation about whatever it is in WDSU's style guide that prefers "WDSU went online and found out" to "WDSU has learned" or even "According to (WEBSITE X).." but back to the matter at hand.

60 percent of fees collected by training cameras on citizens, is going directly to something called OnGo Live and its chairman Robert C. Leonard. Can anyone "go online" and find out more about these rolling tax farmers?

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