The River Forest red-light cash cow

Opinion

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By Brett McNeil

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If you have recently received a red-light ticket, or three, from your friends in River Forest, you are not alone. Through late September, the village has issued more than 14,300 red-light tickets this year.

At $100 a pop, that's more than $1.4 million in red-light citations. At its current pace, the village will issue almost $2 million in red-light tickets by the end of 2016.

That's from just two cameras (Harlem and North & Harlem and Lake).

We all know River Forest is a place for high-achievers but the village's red-light cameras are truly extraordinary. They are potentially 10 times more profitable than your garden variety suburban red-light camera, based on figures from a 2015 analysis by the Daily Herald newspaper. The average red-light camera in the average Chicago suburb — they looked at records for 123 such devices in 32 communities — generates less than $100,000.

Village Administrator Eric Palm has said publicly that River Forest splits the red light ticket revenue 60/40 with its vendor, SafeSpeed LLC. That means River Forest, through late September, has issued red-light tickets this year potentially worth more than $860,000 to the village. This figure appears to be considerably higher than Palm has let on during earlier public comments about the red-light program.

In July, Palm told a Pioneer Press reporter that River Forest officials budgeted for just over $620,000 of red-light ticket revenue in their FY 2017 budget. Given the village's torrid ticket-issuing pace — they're sending out about 400 red light tickets per week, on average — that seems like extraordinarily conservative budget forecasting. Or perhaps it seems like a falsehood.

What gives, Mr. Palm?

The math is pretty straightforward: If current numbers hold steady through all of FY 2017, River Forest will issue almost $2 million in red-light citations. The village's cut of that money would be about $1.15 million, or almost twice what Palm told Pioneer Press.

For those scoring at home, those projections work out to almost $1 million in tickets issued per camera. That's about 10,000 tickets per camera, an average of more than 25 red-light citations per day at both the Lake Street and North Avenue locations. If you were thinking about popping over to Whole Foods for some fair trade tapenade, maybe head to Pete's and save yourself $100.

Have you received a red-light ticket in River Forest and are now thinking about contesting it? Don't bother.

Village records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show you've got about a one-in-10 chance of having the ticket overturned by adjudicator Perry Gulbrandsen. He will lecture you and he will crack wise, but Gulbrandsen is a hanging judge and you are bound to swing.

The village has paid Gulbrandsen $5,100 this year but he's clearly worth it. His guilty findings alone have yielded $95,400 in revenue for River Forest, and there's still a quarter of the year to go.

Village Administrator Palm has repeatedly claimed the village issues citations in only about half of the cases sent for review by SafeSpeed. If true, River Forest this year has dedicated manpower and other resources inside the police department to review almost 29,000 video clips of potential moving violations. It's possible this kind of work is why some of the village's cops signed up to be police, but I wonder if River Forest taxpayers wouldn't rather see their officers out from behind a computer screen.

Whatever their budget forecasts for the money, River Forest's red-light camera program is clearly a cash cow. The village right now is on pace to reap more than $1.1 million in red-light fines this year. They should do at least that well next year.

One big, obvious question: How do they plan to spend all that money? 

Reader Comments

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Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: October 8th, 2016 8:25 AM

Rob - one thing I'm starting to learn in driving around Lake St. from Harlem to Oak Park Ave. - you pretty much have to dance through pedestrians, yelllow lights, etc. - or you're not going anywhere anytime soon. This is especially true for that corner. Stopped busses, people walking against the lights or slowly traversing that west side of Lake St. while talking on their phones. I don't think anyone purposely comes to a rolling stop at that intersection - but it happens. And I agree with Tom - that camera is a freaking money machine.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: October 8th, 2016 7:34 AM

This is pretty simple. Stop at a red light. Once again Tom MacMillan jumping to ridiculous conclusions.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: October 7th, 2016 9:35 PM

Nancy - I'm pretty sure you can turn right on red there, unless they changed it. I do it all the time. It's just rolling stops that are a no no. I should know - just paid my 3rd ticket. Hate that camera. I "wave" to it every time I'm at that corner just to remind me to brake completely.

Nancy Kovach from Oak Park  

Posted: October 7th, 2016 6:16 PM

The sign no Harlem and Lake states "RED LIGHT PHOTO ENFORCED.' There is no mention about not turning right on red. As a newcomer to Oak Park, I learned the hard way to interpret the ambiguous signage. This point was not mentioned in the article.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: October 4th, 2016 8:31 PM

With all the money vendor SafeSpeed LLC makes, one can only wonder how many meals, Cubs playoff tickets and other entertainment they will be lavishing on the River Forest officials who help them with this "safety" decision being installed.

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