Mendoza: State won't collect red light camera fines. Suburbs: We'll get someone else to do it

  • Traffic passes through the intersection of Randall Road and Acorn Lane in Lake in the Hills.

    Traffic passes through the intersection of Randall Road and Acorn Lane in Lake in the Hills. Daily Herald file photo/2009

  • Villa Park relied on the state to help collect overdue fines from red light cameras like this one at Route 83 and Riverside Road. Comptroller Susana Mendoza said that service is ending.

    Villa Park relied on the state to help collect overdue fines from red light cameras like this one at Route 83 and Riverside Road. Comptroller Susana Mendoza said that service is ending. Daily Herald file photo/2009

  • Lakemoor's red-light camera at the intersections of Route 12 and Route 120, now down while the intersection is under construction, generated $2.4 million in 2017 and 2018.

      Lakemoor's red-light camera at the intersections of Route 12 and Route 120, now down while the intersection is under construction, generated $2.4 million in 2017 and 2018. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/11/2020 4:59 PM

Twenty-one suburbs will have to find a new way to collect delinquent red-light camera fines this year.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said she's "getting out of the business" of using the state's garnishment powers to collect the overdue fines.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In 2019, the towns received nearly $2 million from Mendoza's office, which generally took the money out of income tax refunds. Most towns then split the fines with the company contracted to run the cameras.

Mendoza complained that red-light camera fines disproportionately affect poor and minority drivers and that she has issues with the industry as a whole. Several elected officials in recent years have been caught up in ongoing federal corruption investigations involving red-light camera operators, including some suburban mayors and legislators.

"The irony is that we're doing the collecting work, but the vendors are the ones who are reaping the benefits," Mendoza said.

Mendoza's office sent Aurora and Lakemoor more than $300,000 each in delinquent payments from scofflaws in both 2018 and 2019. Rosemont received more than $200,000 in each of the last two years. Elk Grove Village, Fox River Grove, Gurnee and Villa Park all got six-figure payments from the comptroller last year, as well.

Lakemoor Mayor Todd Weihofen said Mendoza's decision to stop collecting delinquent fines is "disappointing."

"I wish she would have talked to the people she was serving before she made her decision," he said. "I just wish that if the state comptroller had data and research that backed up what she said that she'd share it."

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According to comptroller records, Mendoza's office has collected $724,210 for Lakemoor since 2017. That's in addition to the $2.4 million Lakemoor collected on its own in red-light camera fines in 2017 and 2018, according to the village's annual audits. The money is generated from cameras at just one intersection, routes 12 and 120, in the village of 6,300 people.

Although Lakemoor's red light cameras are down while the intersection is under construction, Weihofen said Mendoza's decision won't stop the village from using them in the future. The village has a contract with a collection agency that handles recovery of other delinquencies, so Weihofen said the overdue red-light camera fines will be added to that company's responsibilities. Other municipal leaders echoed his sentiments.

"We'll probably go back to using a collection agency like we did before signing up with the comptroller's program," said Kildeer Village Administrator Michael Talbett. "It's not going to stop us from using the cameras. We see the red light cameras as a legitimate traffic control device."

Carol Stream is owed more than $1.4 million in delinquent red-light camera fines since turning on the devices in 2009. The village was going to use the comptroller's services until Mendoza announced her decision.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Our vendor does the collection and they're actually not very good at it, unfortunately," said Carol Stream Village Manager Robert Mellor.

Red-light camera tickets cost about $100, but double if late in most cases.

Statewide, Mendoza's office remitted $11.2 million in delinquent fines to 60 municipalities last year. That's up from the $9.1 million distributed to 54 towns the year before.

There is growing bipartisan support in the state legislature to ban the devices. State Rep. David McSweeney, a Barrington Hills Republican, has filed bills to eliminate the cameras. He also wants the legislature to codify Mendoza's decision in law "so no future comptroller can collect these fines."

"It's a corrupt program," McSweeney said. "This is all about revenue and not about safety."

Some government watchdogs and members of the public have been skeptical about red light cameras from their inception.

Three people were sentenced to prison in connection with a bribery scandal involving Chicago's first red-light camera vendor. In recent months, former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat, was caught up in a federal corruption investigation involving vendor SafeSpeed, which has red-light camera contracts throughout the suburbs. SafeSpeed CEO Nikki Zollar has denied any wrongdoing, and in a letter to Mendoza she said the company is cooperating with federal investigators. Zollar called Mendoza's allegations against SafeSpeed "factually inaccurate and untrue."

A Chicago Sun-Times report last week said two suburban mayors -- Oakbrook Terrace's Tony Ragucci and McCook's Jeffrey Tobolski -- had their houses raided by the FBI and tens of thousands of dollars in cash seized. Both towns have SafeSpeed red light cameras installed. Oakbrook Terrace came under scrutiny in 2017 when the Chicago Tribune reported the Illinois Department of Transportation, at the behest of Sandoval, reversed a decision that kept the city from installing red light cameras at Route 83 and 22nd Street.

In 2019, Oakbrook Terrace collected $5.4 million in red-light camera fines, according to its annual audit. Nearly $2.2 million of that went to SafeSpeed.

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