‘More questions than answers’

Uncertainty abounds for Marshalltown, Tama traffic camera programs after Gov. Reynolds signs new regulation bill

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY MICHAEL D. DAVIS — In March, the city of Tama installed two fixed site traffic cameras, one in the 1700 block of McClellan Street and another in the 500 block of East 13th Street (pictured). Because the city’s ATE program began after Jan. 1, there is currently uncertainty about whether or not it will be allowed to continue under a new law.

Since they first arrived in Iowa, Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) units, more commonly known as speed cameras, have been controversial almost everywhere they’ve been installed. Supporters tout them as a way to crack down on excessive speeding within communities, and detractors deride them as an unconstitutional money grab by local governments.

While there was talk of an outright ban on such devices during the 2024 legislative session, what ultimately passed the Iowa House and Senate — and was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds recently — was a compromise of sorts, enacting stricter regulations on where ATE can be implemented and how the revenues generated can be spent. How it will affect the relatively new programs in Marshalltown and Tama is a matter on which leaders from both cities are currently seeking clarification.

During interviews last week, Reps. Dean Fisher (R-Montour) and Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown), both of whom supported the bill, explained some of the major changes it will bring about once it takes effect on July 1. Fisher said cities will now be compelled to show a “need” for the systems and register them with the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT), and it will also require law enforcement officers to review every ticket issued. Effective July 1, tickets cannot be issued until a driver is going more than 10 miles over the posted speed limit, and the fine schedule will be standardized — $75 for driving 11-20 mph over, $100 for 21-25 mph over, $250 for 26-30 over and $500 for 30 or more mph over the limit, all of which are doubled in a work zone.

Additionally, local governments will be required to place signage within 500 to 1,000 feet of any cameras to warn drivers of their presence, and annual reports providing information on crashes and citations at ATE sites must be submitted to the DOT by March 1 of each year.

In Fisher’s understanding, cities that began utilizing the systems after Jan. 1 — Tama’s cameras were not installed until late March — will need to cease operations immediately and reapply at a later date.

“In the bill, it specifically states in Division II that if the program wasn’t in operation prior to Jan. 1, they can’t start up (again) until July of 2026,” he said.

In an email, Tama Police Chief Jason Bina shared a different interpretation of the law as the city’s contracts were signed before Jan. 1, so he believed Tama would be considered “grandfathered in” despite the fact that they were not operational until a later date. When reached for a follow up, Fisher said he had put the question to his staff and believed the bill is clear about language requiring that the systems must be in use and placed at a location by Jan. 1 in order to qualify. Tama Mayor Brian Hanus indicated that there were still plenty of questions remaining to be answered on the matter, and ultimately, the city would “do what it had to do” to comply with state law.

On Wednesday morning, Tama City Attorney Thomas Hillers told the News Chronicle that he is reviewing the bill and plans to provide a legal opinion “in the near future.”

A separate provision of the bill bans mobile units that issue tickets (warnings are still allowed) in communities of less than 20,000 people, but thus far, Tama (with an estimated population of 3,064 as of 2022) has only utilized two fixed sites, one in the 1700 block of McClellan Street and the other in the 500 block of East 13th Street.

In Marshalltown, two fixed site ATE units — one on Lincoln Way near the western city limits and another on South 12th Avenue/Governor Road in the southeast part of town — have been operational since last July, and through the end of April, they have already issued over 12,000 tickets. Within the last few months, a mobile unit has been added, and it has so far been placed at four different locations — May Street, West Main Street, South 12th Street and, most recently, East South Street.

Police Chief Mike Tupper said the mobile unit hasn’t issued a high number of tickets thus far but has served its “desired purposes.” Some residents are even requesting that it be moved to their neighborhood on the MPD’s Facebook page.

“Speeding is a problem that a lot of people are concerned about, and cameras are not the only tool that we’re using to address that. But it is a tool that helps us, and it’s an important resource,” Tupper said.

One of the most controversial aspects of the program in Marshalltown ended up being how the money was spent as the city council, in a 5-2 vote last October, opted to allocate 25 percent of the annual ATE revenue to police department technology, 50 percent to community beautification projects such as park improvements, maintenance of city entrance points/thoroughfares and nuisance enforcement and the remaining 25 percent on the implementation of the Arts and Culture Master Plan. Under the new regulations, two of those uses are now likely null and void as the bill stipulates that the money generated must be put toward either roads or public safety.

With or without the funding, Arts+Culture Alliance Executive Director Amber Danielson said the master plan is still her primary focus.

“The Arts+Culture Alliance is thrilled to have the support and ongoing collaboration with many community partners, including the City, for the implementation of the City of Marshalltown’s Arts & Culture Master Plan. We are fully dedicated to this critical and necessary work and the implementation of the Master Plan is our top priority,” she said.

Marshalltown Parks and Recreation Director Geoff Hubbard noted that $100,000 of the ATE revenues have already been put toward irrigation at the softball complex along with $50,000 for the playground at Timber Creek Park.

“I don’t see (Parks and Rec) getting any more (money) with changes starting in July for the state. I’m glad I asked for it when I did!” he said.

Marshalltown Mayor/Acting City Administrator Joel Greer said the city is still waiting for clarification from its legal counsel on what exactly the bill will mean locally, and a discussion or action item will likely be placed on a future city council agenda once “we think we have an answer or have to address the parties we won’t be able to fund.”

Tupper is currently wading through some of the uncertainty that comes with any new law, and he said he had recently met with the vendor, Sensys Gatso, to determine how the program might need to be adjusted.

“We’re gonna have to make some changes with some signage, so we’re looking into that. The fine schedule will change because right now, it’s $100, and the bill, I think, sets it at $75,” Tupper said. “There’s still some question marks about permitting and how that’s gonna look. We were notified this week that the DOT’s working on the administrative rules for permitting, and I don’t know what the timeline is for that. They haven’t told anybody, and then we don’t know what permitting might look like for a mobile unit. So do we just need one permit, or do we need a permit for every spot we might park it? There’s a lot of questions, and more questions than answers right now.”

Tupper does not feel that Marshalltown’s program is in jeopardy in any way, but he said they have “some work to do” to figure out the permitting process. Ultimately, however, the decision to continue or discontinue the use of ATE cameras rests with the city council, not the police department.

“The city council’s decided to use this tool, and we’re trying to put it to good use so that we can slow people down. I wish people would put us out of business. Just obey the speed limit,” the chief said.

Among Marshalltown city councilors, Jeff Schneider was the most vocal skeptic about implementing an ATE program, and almost a year later, he still has mixed feelings.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as I maybe would’ve anticipated, but at the same time, it’s definitely contributed to a negative atmosphere in the city toward politicians,” he said.

Despite his initial opposition, Schneider, who jokingly admitted that he has received one ticket on Lincoln Way, felt the councilors who supported the cameras wanted to improve public safety and provide a force multiplier in areas that are generally difficult for police officers to pull over drivers. He doesn’t believe the reforms will address all of the complaints he hears — for many residents, the mere existence of the cameras is the issue — and he also wonders how mobile units will be able to operate legally with the new requirements regarding signage. Nonetheless, he has a simple solution for those who are upset about receiving tickets: don’t drive 11 or more miles per hour over the speed limit.

Because the program is still relatively new in Tama, no determinations had been made by city leaders on how to use the dollars generated.

Fisher expressed strong “moral objections” to the concept of ATE as he believes tickets should be issued by a police officer as opposed to a clerk in an office, and he told the T-R that he would still support an outright ban on speed cameras in the future other than in “very limited, clear areas where it’s a serious safety issue.”

“Generally, people are… they don’t like them. They don’t think it’s fair, and they’ve got issues with who’s driving the vehicle at the time. And that’s been addressed in the law, so it just clears up a lot of the problems that people have,” he said. “It will probably quiet (the debate) down for a bit, but I think the push to ban them will probably still be there.”

An amendment to ban the cameras completely received 47 votes in the House and came close to a majority.

Conversely, Cahill was generally supportive of the bill and especially the idea that the cameras must be more focused on safety than generating revenue to backfill the general funds of cities, but she did not endorse a full-on ban.

“As people ask, I find that the units we have here in Marshalltown, they do make me adhere to the speed limit because previously, without even knowing it, not consciously, I was going above the speed limit on Lincoln Way, and now I have to make a conscious effort to stay within what the law provides. That’s what some of our things are supposed to make us do,” she said. “You are getting a way to enforce the speed limit there because you’re holding people accountable. So I was OK with that, and I didn’t think it was being used in Marshalltown just as a money grab thing. There was some real purpose to it.”

She added that arguments against the constitutionality of the cameras did not sway her because she felt they were simply enforcing established laws within individual communities. Cahill also said she would continue to advocate for hands free driving laws to prevent accidents and fatalities.

For Tupper, the ATE reform bill represents yet another example of the state government taking away local control from cities and counties.

“It’s frustrating because I think government is at its best when it’s confined to local people who are elected to set policy, so it would be nice if the state government would allow local governments a little more independence to manage their communities,” he said.