By Bob Uphues
The village of North Riverside is about to lose about $1 million annually in red-light camera ticket revenue that has been collected in the past through the Illinois Office of Comptroller.
On Jan. 6, state Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced that her office "will no longer assist municipalities in collection efforts for fines for red-light camera tickets, a system that is both unfair to low-income Illinoisans and the subject of a federal corruption probe."
According to a press release issued by Mendoza's office, her office will cease collecting red-light camera fines effective Feb. 6.
"As a matter of public policy, this system is clearly broken," Mendoza said. "I am exercising the moral authority to prevent state resources being used to assist a shady process that victimizes taxpayers."
Mendoza was referencing what appears to be a wide-ranging probe into political corruption involving state, county and local legislators and their ties to the red-light camera company SafeSpeed LLC.
Federal investigators in September 2019 raided the offices of state Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-11th), who served at the time as the powerful chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and whose district included part of Riverside.
An FBI search warrant for Sandoval's office in Springfield listed SafeSpeed, along with Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski (D-16th) and Tobolski's chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, among others.
Sandoval, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, resigned in the wake of the federal raids on his offices in Springfield, Cicero and at his Chicago home.
In 2017, the Landmark reported on Sandoval's efforts to intervene on SafeSpeed's behalf to convince the Illinois Department of Transportation to approve red-light cameras at the intersection of 22nd Street and Route 83 in Oakbrook Terrace. The former state senator also accepted thousands of dollars in campaign donations from SafeSpeed and one of the company's founding members.
Last week, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that during a raid of Tobolski's home last September, a few days after the Sandoval raids, agents seized $51,000 in cash from a safe inside the house. The source of that money is not known at this time. Tobolski also has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Doherty, Tobolski's chief of staff, was a paid consultant to SafeSpeed, according to published reports. He also has not been charged with any crime.
Doherty also has connections to the VIP Party in North Riverside, serving as Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr.'s campaign chairman in 2017 and working as an advisor on VIP's campaign in 2019. He was paid a total of $8,500 by VIP for consulting in 2017 and 2019.
Hermanek said Doherty did not have a consulting deal with SafeSpeed relative to North Riverside.
"We had a contract with SafeSpeed before I knew who Doherty was," Hermanek said.
Since their installation in 2014, the two red-light cameras at the intersection of Cermak Road and Harlem Avenue in North Riverside have produced more than $10 million in revenue for the village.
Those funds are used to help the village meet its annual police and fire pension obligation, which in the current fiscal year is expected to amount to a little more than $3 million.
The comptroller's decision will make it harder to raise that revenue.
"The comptroller is using her personal opinion on how she feels about red-light cameras as a policy of her office, which I think is inappropriate," Hermanek said, adding he didn't think North Riverside should suffer for the alleged misdeeds of others.
"We try to be as fair as we can," Hermanek said.
After seeing red-light ticket fine collections increase from 2014 to a high of $1.7 million in 2017, the village has seen revenues from the direct payment of fines decline sharply.
Whether it's fewer tickets being issued or fewer people opting to pay them directly, red-light ticket fines fell to about $1.4 million in fiscal year 2018 and they were predicted to fall to $980,000 in fiscal year 2019.
Part of that 2019 decline was also attributed to a months' long Cermak Road construction project during which the cameras were inoperable.
As direct ticket revenue leveled off and then fell, the state comptroller's local debt recovery program became more important. After collecting just $358,544 through the local debt recovery program in fiscal year 2017, North Riverside collected $1.36 million in 2018 and was expected to take in another $1.33 million in 2019.
Future collection of those funds is now off the table – at least through the efforts of the state comptroller's office, which noted that due to late fees a $100 red-light ticket could nearly triple by the time it was collected by the state.
Mendoza also noted that the vast majority of red-light camera tickets are issued to motorists turning right on red.
"This means low-income drivers who really count on their state income tax refund can see it nearly vanish if a fine for a relatively minor traffic offense such as failing to come to a complete stop during a right-turn-on-red," the press release stated.
Hermanek said without the threat of the comptroller's debt recovery program as an incentive to pay the red-light camera tickets, "We may get people to ignore them because there are no repercussions."
The village could opt to use a private collection agency to go after red-light camera scofflaws, but there's no plan on the table right now to do so.
"We'll look into it," said Hermanek. "I'll talk to the attorney for the village and for SafeSpeed to look at what the alternatives are and as to the feasibility of it."