SIOUX CITY | News of the latest plan by the Iowa legislature to ban automated traffic enforcement hasn't kept Sioux City's pair of Interstate 29 speed cameras from nabbing an average of 56 lead-footed drivers per day.
Or each of its half-dozen cameras at city intersections from cracking down on an average of 95 red-light runners per month.
A pair of bills working their way through the Iowa House and Senate would, starting July 1, void city ordinances that allow automated traffic cameras and order their removal. It's the latest of a long line of attempts by the state to ban or regulate Iowa cities' traffic camera use over the past several years.
The push comes as revenue from the automated cameras is trending downward in Sioux City, partially due to decreases in the charge for fines over the past four years and the elimination of four of the city's red-light cameras. The latter move was partially tied to an ongoing dispute with the Iowa Department of Transportation over cameras installed on roads controlled by the state.
Sioux City has used automated cameras since June 2009 for red-light enforcement at a handful of intersections and since May 2011 for speed enforcement along Interstate 29, where conditions can be difficult for police to pull over traffic due to the ongoing construction.
As various bills have surfaced and sputtered at the state legislature over the past few years, Sioux City officials have braced for an oncoming change.
Mayor Bob Scott said he's resigned to the Legislature doing what it will do, but he said it's the city's view that the cameras are a valuable tool to assist with safety.
"I think they’re good, and I think they are sound for public safety," he said. "I don’t think people can appreciate that (police officers) should be out there in 75, 80 mph traffic trying to write tickets."
Opponents of the cameras say they violate Iowans’ constitutional rights while emphasizing revenue -- often at the expense of out-of-state drivers -- under the guise of safety. Proponents say eliminating the cameras could create new risks for law enforcement in areas such as the I-29 construction zone and that eliminating them at the state level infringes on cities' home rule.
Local police and leaders maintain the cameras aren't a money grab but a safety tool. They say they have brought down speeds on I-29, which has long been under a massive reconstruction project that has made lanes tight to navigate.
"We have proven just through our speed studies that with their presence, they are reducing speeds on the interstate. They are impacting accident rates at intersections," Sioux City Police Chief Rex Mueller said. "So it's hard for me to argue with the effect that we know that they have."
But leaders also don't deny the impact the revenue has had. In their first eight years, the cameras raked in nearly $18 million for the city, which it has put toward a host of public safety and streets projects.
Camera ticket revenue is this year helping pay startup costs for the city's brand-new Emergency Medical Services Division, which started up Jan. 1 and could require a subsidy of as much as $1 million by the end of the current fiscal year.
In next year's budget, the city is planning to use more than $200,000 in anticipated red-light camera revenue for fire response equipment and other public safety costs.
The city doesn't often program much of the anticipated revenue into its budgets on the front-end. City Finance Director Donna Forker said she typically uses the funds as they come in to reduce borrowing for city projects.
"Our main focus is either roads or public safety," she said. "We have tried very hard to stay with public safety."
The bill that would eliminate the cameras is currently eligible for floor debate in the Senate, after members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted 7-6 in favor of Senate Study Bill 3025. A similar bill advanced to the full Iowa House for consideration last week.
For years, Sioux City also has been fighting an Iowa Department of Transportation administrative order to remove five cameras on state-controlled roads within the city, including the two I-29 speed cameras, after the state found that not all cameras led to a reduction in crashes.
The fate of Sioux City's cameras is now tied to a lawsuit over a similar DOT order to remove cameras in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Muscatine. That case is awaiting a ruling from the Iowa Supreme Court.
Where the money goes
Sioux City's speed cameras ticket drivers who exceed the speed limit by 11 mph or more. Fines start at $100 and increase for higher speeds. Fines for red-light violations also cost $100. A cut of the fines goes to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., the out-of-state contractor that owns and maintains the cameras.
Traffic violations arising from the cameras are municipal civil penalties, meaning that unlike actually being pulled over by a police officer, they are not criminal penalties and don't appear on driving records.
The fines were reduced a few years ago. The $195 fine for running a red light was lowered to $100 in 2014. The $168 fine for speeding 11 mph over the speed limit was reduced to $100 in 2016.
The lower fines, combined with fewer cameras, has led to a sharp drop in revenue for the city. After peaking at $5 million in fiscal 2013, the annual revenue dipped as low as $955,689 in 2015. The receipts bounced back to $2.9 million in 2016 before dropping to $1.5 million for the budget year ended June 30.
From mid-2009 through fiscal 2017, the city received nearly $18 million in combined red-light camera and speed camera revenue.
The city is anticipating to leverage $1.44 million in the current fiscal year. Up to $1 million from the I-29 cameras is earmarked for the city's brand-new Emergency Medical Services Division. The city's Fire Rescue Department took over 911 ambulance calls on Jan. 1 after the previous private operator, Siouxland Paramedics, discontinued the service.
Other traffic camera money is going toward public safety operating costs, medical expenses and fire rescue equipment.
Major uses for the funding over past years have included:
--$2 million to replace radios for police and fire rescue personnel.
--$1.13 million for road maintenance projects.
--$1.1 million to construct a new fire station at 3109 Dearborn Blvd. to replace the aging Fire Station No. 4.
--$962,217 for repairs at the downtown Police/Fire Headquarters.
--$947,706 for public safety medical costs.
Violations trending down
A 2010 speed study on I-29 prior to the cameras' installation found 38.2 percent of vehicles were traveling more than 11 mph over the speed limit. Since the cameras were installed, the number of vehicles traveling 11 mph or more above the speed limit has never exceeded 1 percent, according to the city data.
While thousands of vehicles running red lights or gunning too fast on the interstate receive citations each year, the number of those citations has generally trended downward over the past few years, or at least stayed generally the same.
In 2017, the I-29 speed cameras nabbed 20,442 people traveling 11 mph or more over the speed limit, or about .35 percent of the 5.7 million vehicles that passed the machines. That number was about average for the past three years and down from the peak .85 percent in 2012.
The city's six red-light cameras ticketed 6,906 vehicles in 2017, the lowest number since the cameras were installed in 2010. That's partially because the city has reduced the number of red-light cameras from 10 to six, most recently shutting off the camera at Outer Drive and Lewis Boulevard in 2016.
But the average monthly violations per camera are also trending slightly lower. There was an average of 95 per camera per month in 2017, down from 134 in 2010, the first year the cameras were in use.
Red-light cameras currently monitor the following intersections:
--Fifth and Court streets, eastbound traffic.
--Cheyenne Boulevard and Outer Drive, southbound traffic.
--Gordon Drive and South Fairmount Street, westbound traffic.
--Gordon Drive and South Palmetto, westbound traffic.
--Sergeant Road and South Lakeport Street, eastbound traffic.
--Singing Hills and South Lewis boulevards, westbound traffic.
AUDUBON, Iowa | Albert the Bull and his town, Audubon, have a stake -- or steak, in this case -- in Super Bowl Sunday.
A Cenex commercial, slated to air during the third quarter of the big game, shines a light on the town and the "Super Bull" who has welcomed visitors to the Audubon County seat since his dedication on Oct. 31, 1964, some 26 months before Super Bowl I.
Super Bull and Super Bowl. Get it?
Cenex, which has a gas station/convenience store in Audubon, had the spot filmed in town over a two-day period in early November. Producers returned to Audubon last Saturday to offer locals a sneak peak at the piece during the annual Chamber of Commerce banquet.
"The guys showing the commercial had to go out and buy a TV because the TV we had wouldn't handle this deal," said Sam Kauffman, lifelong Audubon resident. "So, they bought a 60-inch TV for $800 just to show us this."
Once the ad and a five-minute documentary they shot to highlight Audubon finished, Cenex marketing pros donated the TV, which was auctioned as a fundraiser for the betterment of the community. A 500-gallon Cenex fuel card, also donated, was then auctioned as well, Kauffman reported.
I featured Kauffman in a May 2003 Journal story as I traveled the state with former Des Moines Register columnist Chuck Offenburger, who frequently chronicled Kauffman at Sam's Barber Shop on the corner of Broadway and Washington streets downtown.
Kauffman, mayor here for 22 years, was one of dozens of people who helped construct Albert the Bull in 1963-64, volunteering for the Audubon Junior Chamber of Commerce. The 30-ton concrete statute, which stands 28 feet tall, boasts of a 15-foot span between his horns. This massive model Hereford is, ahem, said to be anatomically correct, thanks to assistance provided at the time of his construction by the American Hereford Association.
"Albert's got a lot of beer cans in him," Kauffman said while recalling the days some 108 local volunteers banded together for the task. "And some of them are mine!"
Albert was named for Albert Kruse, an Audubon banker who originated the town's Operation T-Bone whereupon cattle feeders and business leaders traveled by train -- with their livestock -- to Chicago to rub elbows with buyers, cementing relationships that kept the local beef industry thriving.
Audubon, like most rural Midwest communities, has seen its population plummet since then, one residual of expanding farms and shrinking families. Nine barbers toiled in this town -- 15 served Audubon County -- when Kauffman began his career here more than six decades ago. Now, he said he's the only one.
"The town is hanging in there, but there's been a real downsizing," said Kauffman, 82. "We're down 1,000 people from my childhood."
Still, he said the camera crew succeeded in capturing vignettes showing Audubon and its 2,176 residents at their best, cheering on the Audubon High School Wheelers in 8-man football, passing one another with a wave in the street, and gathering around their claim to fame, the World's Largest Bull.
"The community is very excited," said Laurie Gilbert, administrator for the Audubon County Economic Development organization. She explained she'll attempt to capitalize on the attention today by distributing additional information about the town and county, including recent highlights such as the new rec center, the physical retooling of the old theater (it opens in a couple of months) and a new coffee shop.
"We also have a new 30-room hotel, a restaurant and bar and a huge Waspy's Truck Stop," said Gilbert, alluding to a complex slated to open this summer south of town on Highway 71. "We've got some great things happening!'
Call them "super" developments for a western Iowa city that basks in the spotlight today.
SIOUX CITY | Mayor Bob Scott on Saturday asked city staff to compile a list of potential amendments to the city's upcoming budget that could help reduce a proposed increase in residents' property taxes.
Scott said he wanted the City Council to examine staff's recommendations of the "least painful" ways to reduce the projected 1 percent increase residents would pay on their taxes under the city's proposed operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
"I think it's the right thing to do. I think citizens expect it," he said, adding that even if nothing changes the City Council will have done what it could to keep taxes as low as possible.
Under the proposed $207.1 million operating budget, Sioux City homeowners would see the city's share of their property tax bill rise by about 1 percent. That means the owner of a $100,000 home would pay an additional $8 in taxes to the city, up from $821 to $829.
Scott said homeowners will also be feeling the effect of new valuations on Sioux City residents' homes after the city assessor's office last year raised property values on many dwellings, estimating an 11 percent increase in valuation for residential property.
"I'm just uncomfortable with an $8 increase, knowing that it's not an $8 increase on a house because my house probably went up in valuation," Scott said. "So it's probably more like a $14 or $15 increase on my house, and is that going to break me? No. But is it going to affect somebody that's on a fixed income? Yeah, it is."
City finance director Donna Forker said the city would need to reduce its overall tax asking by more than $400,000 to keep the impact per $100,000 of valuation steady.
After the meeting, she said she plans to look through the budget and discuss with city management ways to lower the levy without reducing services to residents.
"We will come up with what we feel will be the least impactful to the citizens," she said. "We will try not to do anything to the field services crews, the people who are providing service on a day-to-day basis because we feel that they're as bare-bone as they can possibly be."
Councilman Pete Groetken said he is willing to look at the tweaks but wants to be sure the city is not sacrificing services.
"I'm a little worried -- I'll wait and see how the list comes out -- that we end up cutting services, and that may not be a real good thing," he said.
According to budget documents released last week, the projected increase in spending is a result of higher workers' compensation and general liability insurance premiums, as well as increased debt service, an increased subsidy for the Emergency Medical Services Division and increased subsidies for the city's airport and transit systems.
The budget has also been affected by a scheduled 1.32 percent decrease in the percentage of assessed residential valuation subject to taxation under a state-imposed formula known as a "rollback."
"That cost us money," said City Manager Bob Padmore. Padmore added that many city departments are already running tight.
Sioux City Council members spent nearly six hours Saturday discussing the various city departments' operating budgets. The council will resume budget talks during a wrap-up hearing 8 a.m. Feb. 21.
The council is scheduled to vote on the budget March 5, ahead of the March 15 deadline for cities to finalize their budgets.