School speed cameras, a safety boost or cash grab?

Freeporters offer mixed views on speed cameras and raise financial questions

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A number of Freeporters interviewed by the Herald last week expressed concern and skepticism over the possible return of school-zone speed cameras to Nassau County.

County Executive Laura Curran proposed an opt-in program for the cameras shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring New York City’s school-zone speed camera program, which expired because of inaction by state lawmakers. Supporters of the plan said it would increase safety near schools, but local residents are questioning who would benefit from the increased revenue.

Freeport has never had speed cameras at any of its schools, according to Police Chief Miguel Bermudez.

Nassau County had a short-lived camera program in 2014, which was riddled with problems. There were no warnings of where the cameras were, and hundreds of drivers going 10 or more miles per hour above the school-day speed limit were issued $80 tickets at times when school was not in session, including some before the start of the school year. The County Legislature unanimously voted to end the program, which had generated about $30 million in revenue, in December 2014.

Debbie Wilson, of Freeport, said she was at the meeting at which the program was ended. Curran was a legislator at the time, and, Wilson said, a large number of people turned out to oppose the cameras. “Curran learned her lesson,” Wilson said. “Those cameras had zero to do with children’s safety and everything to do with picking the pockets of the hardworking taxpayers of this county.”

In the Facebook group We Are Freeport, Peggy Lester questioned whether the village would receive any of the revenue generated by the cameras.

Mayor Robert Kennedy said he believed the village would support any initiative or project that school officials believed would protect the children. He noted, however, “If cameras were to be installed, I believe that all funds generated should be utilized for school security and protection of our students, but should not be utilized to generate funds to balance the county budget.”

Kennedy reiterated an argument that he has made several times — that the county and towns are not passing along to villages their fair share of state sales taxes. So, he said, he did not believe the county would fairly share the revenue from speed cameras with them.

“It’s 100 percent for revenue,” Rick Cohen, of Freeport, said. “It’s an absolute lie that it’s for safety.”

“It’s a money grab and nothing more,” Freeporter Denise Gunn said.

The Freeport School District issued a statement through Dr. Alice Kane the district’s assistant superintendent for educational and administrative services: “At this time, Laura Curran’s office is seeking input from superintendents. This matter is still under review and discussion. It is not possible to answer . . . questions at this time.”

Others said the plan would do little to decrease speeding. “If it’s about safety, there are many ways to immediately reduce the speeds near every school,” Jason Verity, of Baldwin, said. Instead of installing cameras, he said, the county should build speed bumps near schools on smaller streets and groove pavement on larger roads.

Specifics of Curran’s opt-in proposal, which would require the approval of state and county lawmakers, were not available by press time.

The County Legislature’s minority leader, Kevan Abrahams, a Freeport Democrat, said that while he thought the plan deserved consideration, he would need more information before committing to a vote. Specifically, he said, he wanted to know how school districts would opt into the program. “Is this something that could happen administratively, or is this something where the public could have an open comment on?” he asked. “I think it’s better to get community input, which some of the greatest community involvement happens on the school district level.”

Abrahams said he would also support districts asking residents to vote on such a proposal via a referendum. “I would want to go the extra mile to make sure this is something the community or school district actually embraces,” he said. Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello, a Republican from New Hyde Park, did not return a call for comment by press time.

County Legislator Debra Mulé, a Freeport Democrat and former member of the Freeport Board of Education, said the intent of the proposed speed camera program is to improve safety. She is particularly concerned about Bayview Avenue Elementary School, she said.

“It’s a good thing for safety, and people do speed along Merrick Road and Bayview Avenue,” Mulé said. “Kids in Freeport have to cross Merrick, and I want to make sure it’s for safety and not for money.”

She added that school officials and local residents would ultimately decide the issue, as the proposal calls for an opt-in program.

State Sen. John Brooks, a Democrat from Seaford, did not say whether he would support a state bill to authorize speed cameras in Nassau County, but he said he believes protecting children must be a top priority for all levels of government. “I will work with my colleagues, in local and state government and from all political parties, to determine the best way to balance safety and clearly mark any speed cameras that are implemented,” Brooks said in an email.

State Assemblyman Brian Curran, a Republican from Lynbrook, said that while his vote on a potential bill would depend on how the legislation was crafted, he was mostly against the idea and called it a disguised revenue enhancer. “I am all for whatever we have to around school to make sure our schoolchildren are safe,” he said, “but a system of speed cameras, I believe, exists only to enhance the revenue for the county.”