Tiny Lakemoor gets big bucks from red-light cameras

More than 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of routes 12 and 120 in Lakemoor every day.

Village officials need 50 of those drivers to get caught by red-light cameras and pay $100 fines to hit this year's $1.8 million revenue target.

That's 36 percent of Lakemoor's total expected income for this year.

Since being installed in early 2012, the three cameras at the single intersection have generated nearly $5 million for the community of about 6,000 residents on the border between Lake and McHenry counties.

Among 32 suburban red-light camera programs, it is easily the most lucrative, according to a Daily Herald analysis. The analysis shows annual revenue generated by suburban red-light cameras has increased nearly $3 million in those communities from 2012 to 2014.

In Lakemoor, the red-light cameras provide the largest single source of revenue for the village, generating more money than property, sales and income taxes combined.

A portion of those funds will cover some of the Lakemoor police department's operations, but the lion's share will go toward paying for a new $6 million village hall and police headquarters.

“We try to be fiscally responsible so we don't become dependent on it,” said Lakemoor Mayor Todd Weihofen, “but we had no idea what it was going to bring in.”

The village contracts with a vendor that handles the initial violation notice. Those violations are sent to a Lakemoor police officer for review, who then issues the $100 fines to the owners of vehicles caught by the cameras. If the vehicle owner contests the fine, he or she can request an administrative review before a village-hired arbitrator.

Tickets are issued for driving through a red light or, more frequently, turning right at a red light without first coming to a complete stop. Weihofen said about 60 percent of the violations result in paid fines.

While Weihofen said the cameras have made the intersection safer, that's not what Illinois Department of Transportation data shows. The number of crashes skyrocketed in the cameras' first full year, going from 18 in 2012 to 35 in 2013, mainly because of an increase in rear-end crashes, IDOT data provided by the village shows. The number of crashes resulting in injuries also increased.

“My view is this has never been about safety. It's about additional revenue,” said state Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican whose legislation against red-light cameras passed the Illinois House recently and is awaiting a vote by the Senate.

There have been no fatalities at that intersection since at least 2010, according to IDOT data. IDOT's data shows crashes that resulted in serious injuries happened with greater frequency since the cameras were installed. Initial 2014 figures show fewer crashes but with just as many injuries as before the cameras were installed.

Some who work in the area said the cameras have had little effect on drivers' behavior.

“I haven't seen a real change there,” said Terry Anderson, manager of SkipperBud's boat store at the southeast corner of the intersection, which is along one of the main routes to the Chain O' Lakes and Wisconsin.

“If you sat back on any given day and watched how many people blow that light, you'd be amazed. I mean, (the cameras) didn't change anything if they're making all that money from it still. But I got nailed early on and now I know that it's there.”

McSweeney's legislation targets only communities that don't have home-rule powers, like Lakemoor. Weihofen called the bill unfair.

“I think if they want to take such a bold stance, they should do it to all communities,” he said. “That is what legislators can do, but they don't want to upset Cook County.”

Lakemoor is not hurting for money. According to the last audit, the village has more than $4.7 million in reserves, an amount equal to 86 percent of the village's annual expenses. Government finance experts recommend about two months — or 17 percent — of operational expenses be kept in reserves at a minimum.

“The village board has been very cautious,” said Village Administrator David Alarcon. “We are putting money away and making sure we have adequate reserves in case of emergency, which is particularly important these days because of the instability of state government financing.”

The area where the red-light cameras are located is a newly minted tax increment financing district, created to potentially spur redevelopment, at the cost of taxes above a certain level not going to local governments. However, some experts believe the presence of the red-light cameras might actually deter development.

“It's a good concern to have and something you'd want to keep an eye on to see if motorists were actively avoiding the area,” said Jason Rittenberg, director of research and advisory services for the Ohio-based Council of Development Finance Agencies.

Weihofen agreed the lights might eventually have to come down if that's the case.

“Once the development is in place, it could possibly be a deterrent, but we're not to that point yet,” the mayor said. “The major deterrent to economic development in that area now is the lack of infrastructure, which requires money.”

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  Lakemoor is using some money from its red-light cameras to help pay for a new $6 million village hall and police headquarters. Red-light cameras at one intersection generated almost $5 million for the village in two years. Brian Hill/
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