By Jim Provance

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously sided with the state against the city of Toledo in a decision that could cost the city millions of dollars if it continues to use stationary traffic cameras.

Lucas County Common Pleas Court and the 6th District Court of Appeals previously found state lawmakers could not enact laws designed to financially penalize Toledo and other cities that operate traffic cameras. But in the decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court found those lower court rulings infringed upon the lawmaking authority of the General Assembly.

"Here, the trial court lacked authority to enjoin enforcement of the spending provisions relating to traffic cameras enacted in [House Bill] 64 because no action has been filed challenging their constitutionality and no court has found them unconstitutional," Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote.

The justice added that a lower court permanent-injunction from 2015 could not prevent state lawmakers from enacting new laws related to traffic cameras, because the "separation-of-powers doctrine precludes a court from enjoining the General Assembly from exercising its legislative power. ..."

The financial penalties enacted in 2015 were never enforced as a result of the lower-court injunction.

Toledo never separately challenged the spending provisions' constitutionality, but city Law Director Dale Emch said the city now will file a new lawsuit to do just that.

"The state continues to penalize Toledo and other cities for their traffic-law enforcement cameras, in effect making roads less safe," he said. "They are penalizing Toledo for making decisions as to what's best for our city."

Through May, the city collected $800,862 from stationary red-light cameras, for which it budgeted $1.8 million in revenue for 2018. By comparison, handheld speed-enforcement cameras -- not affected by the state restrictions -- brought in $2.1 million through May toward the $5.7 million budgeted.

Revenue from the cameras goes into the city's $255 million general fund.

City spokesman Ignazio Messina said the possible loss of revenue is something Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz and city council members will have to evaluate, if the state ultimately prevails.

He said the city will continue to use the cameras in the immediate future.

"We are planning on asking for a new injunction," he said. "If for whatever reason, the court denies the request for an injunction, then the question of continuing to use them will have to be addressed."

The Supreme Court last year in a different case ruled in favor of Toledo and other traffic-camera cities by finding they had the constitutional home-rule authority to operate such programs. In the process, it struck down portions of a state law that imposed restrictions on how such programs operated.

Among those restrictions was a requirement that a police officer be present to witness the violation caught on camera, something the city contended would make the program economically infeasible to continue.

But the case decided by the Supreme Court this week revolved around a subsequent budget provision to reduce state aid to cities that did not comply with those restrictions. The reduction in Local Government Fund distributions would have offset the amount of fines contained in civil citations issued for violations, regardless of whether the cities collected all those fines.

That set up the potential for cities to lose money on the camera programs.

"We are pleased the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with our arguments that there are significant separation-of-powers issues that arise when a court attempts to enjoin the General Assembly from enacting legislation," said Dan Tierney, spokesman for Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Mr. Tierney deferred questions on whether the current law will now be enforced to the General Assembly.

State Rep. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), a primary force behind the original budget language and a new bill revising it, said he doesn't believe the court's decision will result in the retroactive loss of millions in revenue for Toledo. He said he would prefer to wait for Senate passage of a new House-passed bill that does not tie the revenue to compliance with a state law that has been partially invalidated.

In March, the House of Representatives passed House Bill 410, which would withhold an amount equal to the fines actually collected rather than simply issued. That bill is pending in the Senate.

"This is a real shot across the bow to places like Toledo and Dayton that have been scofflaws for many years and have exalted their local situations above what the legislature believes is appropriate public policy," Mr. Seitz said. "They had better tread very carefully, because after [House Bill] 410 passes, we will know whether this is about safety as the cities contend or is in fact about revenue."

Mr. Emch disagreed with the contention that the cameras are all about cash. He said the cameras force drivers to think more about the rules of the road and drive more carefully.

"It certainly makes me more conscious of my driving as I'm going through those areas," he said. "It makes all drivers a little more aware of their speedometer and think before a yellow light as to whether to push and go through."

Judge William A. Klatt of the Columbus-based 10th District Court of Appeals sat on the case in the place of Justice Terrence O'Donnell, who had recused himself.

Justice Pat DeWine participated despite the fact that his father, Mr. DeWine, brought the appeal on the state's behalf. He has taken the position that he does not have to recuse himself unless his father personally argues the case.

Staff writer Sarah Elms contributed to this report.

(c)2018 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)