Traverse City News and Events

DDA Tables Downtown Security Cameras

By Beth Milligan | Nov. 18, 2023

Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members put the brakes Friday on a proposal to install more than three dozen security cameras – which would’ve have been leased from a private security company and operated by the Traverse City Police Department – throughout downtown Traverse City. Board members were skeptical of the project’s price tag and wanted more data before moving forward, as well as to explore other options like deploying a smaller number of cameras as a pilot project or partnering with private business owners to install cameras.

The project, which has been discussed since 2018 and was also included as a goal in the city’s Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan, called for the DDA to fund the cameras and the TCPD to manage and operate them. The cameras – leased from Flock Safety, which also has agreements with Garfield Township, East Bay Township, and Peninsula Township for license plate-reading cameras through the Sheriff’s Office – would cost $28,500 to install initially and then $114,000 to operate annually. Those costs were increased from a few weeks ago when the DDA board first discussed the proposal due to staff recommending installing 38 cameras versus 31 to provide more coverage downtown.

The camera costs would have been covered by a combination of TIF 97 and Old Town TIF funds. Board members questioned whether the DDA should solely bear those costs, or if the city/TCPD should partner in covering them. DDA CEO Jean Derenzy wrote in a memo that she believed that “due to downtown’s position as a regional attraction and the amount of associated foot traffic, our regional financial partnership (TIF) should be utilized for the cost of the installation of cameras and annual ongoing costs.”

TCPD Chief Matt Richmond provided a memo answering several questions previously raised by board members about the cameras. He said they would not have facial recognition technology, nor would they record audio. The cameras rely on cellular service, though Richmond said it was possible they could connect to the city’s fiber system. Board members asked whether staff had explored buying versus leasing cameras. Richmond said yes: “The determination was made to lease, as Flock would be responsible for replacing/upgrading when upgrades occur and be responsible for maintenance,” he wrote. “The benefits of leasing versus purchasing were both a financial cost savings and professional knowledge of technology upgrades in cameras.”

Derenzy said the project would help provide “transparency” and “safety” downtown. Richmond said camera footage has been vital in assisting with prosecution in many criminal cases. Having the public know cameras are present can also deter crime, particularly property crimes, he said. Richmond noted approximately 15-20 percent of the TCPD’s service calls take place within DDA boundaries each year.

But while Derenzy and Richmond advocated for measuring the project’s value holistically – not just based on financial ROI but on the more difficult-to-measure benefit of improving public safety and security – several DDA board members were skeptical of the proposal’s cost. With so many other DDA project priorities, board member Michael Brodsky said there was “a lot we could do with” $114,000 annually besides pay for security cameras.

“I don’t think we’ve been shown there’s an active need for these cameras,” he said. Board member Katy Bertodatto agreed. “I also have a problem with the cost of this, and I’m having a hard time seeing it justified,” she said. Board member Pete Kirkwood said he didn’t want to “frustrate” law enforcement efforts to protect public safety, but said it was also the board’s responsibility “to be conservative with our community’s” resources.

Kirkwood questioned whether the DDA might tackle “lower-hanging fruit” by deploying a smaller number of cameras – say 10 – in the most high-trafficked areas of downtown. Richmond said it could be difficult to narrow those down, citing the need to cover significant areas like the Open Space, the bar-heavy 100 block of South Union Street, multiple blocks of Front Street, and side streets that accommodate parade routes or events like the CherryT Ball Drop.

However, board members were not persuaded, with no one willing to put a motion forward for a vote on the proposal. After it was clear there was not enough board support to move ahead, Chair Gabe Schneider suggested the proposal be tabled and additional options explored. That could include staff providing additional data and justification for the security cameras for further board discussion or looking at a “scaled-down pilot project” with a lower cost and fewer number of cameras, Schneider said. He also suggested looking at a public-private partnership that could establish a DDA fund that downtown merchants could tap into to purchase exterior security cameras for their properties in exchange for agreeing to provide access to footage to the TCPD.

Several board members said they’d be willing to support one of those options or still move ahead with some kind of camera project under different parameters. The proposal is expected to return for additional discussion at a future meeting.

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