No more late fees for Montgomery County camera fines

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Local,Maryland,Rachel Baye

Good news for local drivers: Residents who don't pay Montgomery County speed or red light camera tickets on time no longer need to worry about paying a late fee.

But that's bad news for the county's coffers: No late fees means roughly $2 million less for the budget.

The county stopped charging late fees after Maryland District Court Chief Judge Ben Clyburn advised County Executive Ike Leggett that charging late fees may violate state law.

Smile for the cameras
• Montgomery County has 56 fixed speed cameras, 20 portable speed cameras, six speed camera vans, 10 operating red light cameras and plans for an additional 30 red light cameras.
• The county may add 10 portable speed cameras in 2013.
• 702,591 red light camera citations have been issued.
• About 1,880,885 speed citations have been issued.
• For each speeding ticket paid, the county pays the vendor $16.25.
• For each red light ticket paid, the county pays the vendor $29.34.
• Montgomery County has earned roughly $29.8 million in net revenues from speed camera citations between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2012 and expects to earn a net $5.2 million in fiscal 2013.
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State law requires every jurisdiction to charge the same fine to anyone caught by a camera, Clyburn wrote in a March letter. But 31 local jurisdictions were charging different late fees, which may violate the state constitution and "must cease immediately."

Until the March ruling, the county charged a $25 late fee if the $40 speeding citation or the $75 traffic light citation was not paid within 30 days. As a result, the county earned $1.8 million just in late fees last fiscal year -- more than the anticipated $1.7 million, even though the county stopped collecting the fees in March -- and this year had expected to earn more than $2.3 million in late fees.

The problem with charging late fees is that people often don't get their first bill, said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson. Though late fees aren't inherently wrong, "they ought to be uniform and they ought not to be outrageous."

But the fees are also a valuable enforcement tool, said Les Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties.

Because a speed or red light camera citation doesn't result in points on a driver's license, increase insurance premiums or cause a judge to issue a bench warrant for not paying, many drivers "will ignore receiving the ticket and just refuse to pay it," he said.

The Maryland Association of Counties has been working with the District Court to clarify the issue, Knapp said. He said he believes some jurisdictions have continued to charge late fees, though he did not know which.

The District Court could authorize local jurisdictions to charge late fees, which is what Montgomery County officials hope happens, said Dave Stevenson, who represents the Montgomery County Police Department for the County Attorney's Office. But if the District Court decides that it does not have that authority or chooses not to change course and allow late fees, state legislation might be necessary.

In total, camera citations earned the county $12 million in fiscal 2012 and are expected to earn $13.6 million this fiscal year, even without the late fees, according to county budget documents.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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