December 5, 2021

Traffic ticket plan hits road block

S.N. Briere/staff reporter

Cortland City Police Officer Joseph Peters pulls over a man on Main Street for failing to yield the right of way and for having an obstructed license plate in October, both traffic infractions. File photo from October 2019.

A program to let people take a traffic safety course and divert fines away from the state stalled Tuesday over who would handle the income the program would generate.

“Understand, I may refuse to administer the program under that condition,” Cortland County District Attorney Patrick Perfetti told the county legislature’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee after it approved, 5-2, to give control of the revenue — about $300,000 a year — to the legislature. Legislators Beau Harbin (D-Cortland) and George Wagner (R-Marathon, Lapeer) voted no.

“I can’t be selling my discretionary authority to generate money for the county legislature. That’s why the money has to stay under the auspices of the District Attorney’s Office,” Perfetti said Tuesday evening.

Perfetti said the money must be used for criminal justice matters and the Cortland County Sheriff’s Driving While Intoxicated account works the same way.

While Legislator Kelly Preston (R-Homer) said the law states the money must be used for criminal justice endeavors, it does not clearly define what those endeavors can be.

The county sees about 40,000 vehicle and traffic tickets a year, but with new state legislation going into effect Jan. 1, the District Attorney’s Office will need to provide discovery — evidence — in every single traffic case, something that wasn’t done before and would require hiring five new people, which are not in the county’s proposed 2020 budget.

Of the fines collected, 53 percent goes to the state, 42 percent goes to the town court and 5 percent goes to the county. Under the new program, none would go to the state. The county could keep it all, or share it with municipalities.

The program would give drivers a choice: face the ticket and the state-imposed fine — and points on their license — or go through the program, pay a minimum $200 fee and take a six-hour safety course. It would be offered to people ticketed for speeding, not wearing a seat belt, using a cell phone or similar violations.

Harbin said he was concerned over the county being in control of the account and would rather see it be handled by Perfetti, who already controls both a civil asset forfeiture and drug task force accounts.

“We’ve had a really bad track record of saying reserve funds are a sacrosanct and yet not,” Harbin said. “Frankly I don’t trust us going forward if it’s under our auspices.”

Harbin also said the legislature might lower a department’s budget, making up the gap with income from the program.

However, Legislator Cathy Bischoff (D-Cortland), said the legislature should control the fund because it oversees all the departments related to criminal justice.

“Yes, we’ve had challenges in the past, we’ve had challenges with not only reserve funds but we’ve had challenges throughout our fiscal life, but those challenges should not preclude us from, I think, making an appropriate decision,” she said.

The committee decided to move forward on two other resolutions for the program even though it had not solved the dispute over account control. It approved, 5-2, a resolution to create a program administrator position. Harbin and Wagner voted no. It also approved a fee schedule, 5-2. Wagner and Legislator Paul Heider (R-Cuyler, Solon, Truxton) voted no.

However, committee Chairman Michael Barlyski (D-Cortlandville) will not send the three resolutions to the full legislature, so legislators and Perfetti can resolve the dispute and bring the resolutions back next month.

Perfetti said there is no compromising.

“With ethics — no — you start compromising and you head down a slippery slope, he said.