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Charles City’s speeding cameras to go offline on July 1

Charles City’s speeding cameras to go offline on July 1
Charles City’s newly installed traffic cameras will be shut down on July 1 as a new state law goes into effect. Press photo by Travis Fischer
By Travis Fischer,

Charles City’s experiment with automated traffic cameras will soon come to an end.

After three months of computerized eyes watching drivers coming and going from the city, the cameras will no longer be citing speeding drivers as of July 1, because of a new state law restricting the cameras’ use.

Intended to slow down traffic and reduce the number of accidents, particularly on high traffic roads like South Grand Avenue, Police Chief Hugh Anderson approached the City Council last year with a proposal to place a series of automatic cameras at Charles City’s major entries and exits to serve as a deterrent for speeding drivers.

Utilizing the services of Altumint Inc., which installed and operates the cameras in exchange for a portion of the revenue from fees, the system has been taking photos of speeding drivers and send that information to a local police officer for review, resulting in a civil infraction and fee against the driver.

The council adopted an ordinance to allow the cameras during its last meeting of 2023.

While originally intended to go online before the end of the year, getting DOT approval for use of the rights-of-way and getting electricity in place delayed the process. It wasn’t until mid-March that the cameras were ready to go live, located at South Grand Avenue, Highway 14, Highway 18 and Gilbert Street.

The rollout began with a several week grace period where flagged drivers were sent a warning through the mail, rather than the civil infraction notification.

Since then, the cameras have become a hot topic around Charles City, resulting in plenty of community conversations, social media posts, newspaper opinion submissions and more as people discussed and debated their merits. For a time, local restaurant All About Cheesesteaks even cheekily offered a discount for those bringing in their tickets or warnings.

Regardless of the controversy, Chief Anderson said that the cameras have been effective at reining in heavy-footed drivers. While he said he hasn’t gotten a detailed breakdown from Altumint yet about citations issued by the cameras, anecdotally he and his officers have observed a reduction in speeds.

“They’re doing their job very well,” said Anderson. “They slow people down.”

However, any local debate over the cameras was made moot last month when Gov. Kim Reynolds signed HF 2681 into law, establishing new statewide restrictions on the cameras’ use, and requiring cities to receive a permit from the Iowa Department of Transportation before using an automated traffic enforcement system.

Permits will be issued on a per-location basis if the DOT determines that an automated system would be “the least restrictive means to address the traffic safety issue.”

According to Iowa DOT Engineer Chris Poole, the department is working on developing the administrative rules that would govern the applications.

“There is a single permit application that covers all locations that the city wants to use a speed camera,” said Poole. “We would work with the city to make it clear which specific locations are permitted.”

The law also sets caps on the civil infraction for these systems, with the fee for violations over 10 and up to 20 mph over the posted limit capped at $75; 21-25 mph over is capped at $100; 26-30 mph over capped at $250; and $500 for speeds exceeding 30 mph over the posted limit.

Outside of operating costs, revenue from these fees can only be used by local authorities to fund police departments, fire departments, or transportation infrastructure.

Many provisions of the new law were already in practice in Charles City, such as the requirement that citations can only be issued for driving more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit, and that a local person (a police office in Charles City’s case) review and approve the violation before issuing a warning or citation.

However, while the new law would have allowed Charles City to continue to utilize the traffic cameras had they been installed in December as planned, the delay in their installation made a decisive difference in their eligibility for continued use.

The new law allows a grace period for a community to receive a permit if it had cameras in operation before January, but automated traffic systems that went online after Jan. 1 will not be eligible for a permit until July 1, 2026.

“They were delayed just long enough,” said Anderson.

With Charles City ineligible to even apply for a permit for two years, the cameras will be taken offline for the time being.

While there was some confusion over the way the law was written and when parts of it go into effect, the DOT has determined that the city can continue to utilize the cameras until July 1.

It has yet to be determined if the cameras will be merely deactivated or removed completely. The city does have the option to continue to use them to send automated warnings, though Anderson said that’s not currently in the plan.

Anderson noted that drivers caught by the cameras between now and July 1 can still expect to receive a citation later in the summer, as it may be as late as August before the last citations get through the system.

The city has also contracted attorney Ann Troge to serve as the city’s hearing officer for contested citations. The first hearing date for contested citations has yet to be set, but will be once enough tickets are amassed. In the meantime, the Police Department has been working with people, particularly those who have received multiple citations, to work things out.

“The biggest thing is to communicate with us,” said Anderson.

As for the revenue the cameras were expected to bring in, Anderson said that the system hasn’t been online long enough for the city to receive its first payout from Altumint for its share of the collected civil penalties.

With Charles City ineligible to apply for a permit to reinstate the cameras until 2026, Anderson says that there are no plans about what will happen. That decision will be made by the council members in office at that time.

“We’ll deal with it as it comes,” he said.

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