Updated Jan. 10
Amy Hamilton lives in Elgin, a town on the east side of Austin. Last month she got a collection demand for a $422 overdue fine for driving past a school bus that was stopped. She acknowledges that she did it, though not intentionally; an online video link shows her car passing the bus.
And those are the only simple things about what should be a simple case.
The demand letter came from a collections group in Carrollton, in North Texas. The letter says it was a “city of Pflugerville” bus she passed. That town, just north of Austin, doesn’t operate school buses.
The letter says she ignored the original ticket mailed to her in May, so that a late penalty was added to the original fine. Hamilton says she never got the original notice. It’s an all-too-common occurrence when agencies issue tickets or bills for things like automated tollway charges or red-light camera infractions to motorists who, at the time, don’t even know they’ve been tagged.
The collection company says the infraction happened in Austin. But officials in both Austin and Pflugerville deny issuing the original ticket or, in fact, having the authority to do so, since no officer in their employ saw the infraction or knew anything about it.
Who does know about it? BusPatrol, the private company that owns the camera that captured the video — a company, not any political subdivision with ticket-issuing power. The company got involved with Texas school bus safety after a major scandal involving payoffs and federal felony charges took down officials of another company originally involved, as well as leaders of a now-defunct school bus agency in Dallas.
More than a year after voters elected to shut down that agency, called Dallas County Schools, the school bus camera problems continue to affect Texas motorists.
For a fine to be assessed, bus camera tickets must go through a local court. Officials in both Pflugerville and Austin said they have never heard of the collections agency or the ticketing arrangement.
“Our court staff has confirmed that even the citation number [on Hamilton’s ticket] is not our numbering system and that American Municipal Services (AMS) is not a vendor of the City of Pflugerville,” City Manager Sereniah Breland said in an email, after reviewing the collection notice. “Additionally, our court staff confirmed that we have never dealt with a citation resulting from a camera on a school bus.”
Pflugerville school district spokeswoman Tamra[cq] Spence said the ticket was “not issued in our name. We have never had a school bus camera agreement with anyone.” Austin school officials say the same.
Despite that, the collection company, American Municipal Services, says it collects on unpaid school-bus-related tickets all the time, on behalf of the Pflugerville school district.
The deal that got video cameras onto school buses in Pflugerville and in other parts of the state and got the collections company involved is part of a string going back to 2010.
Dallas County Schools, which for years provided bus service to Dallas area public schools, originally made a deal to allow video cameras on its buses in return for a portion of the resulting ticket revenue. After that, several other school districts around the state got involved, with DCS acting as a go-between. The bus agency, through an outside company, Force Multiplier, equipped the other districts’ buses with cameras, in return for a share of their ticket proceeds.
The DCS deal went up in smoke after officials of the bus agency were indicted for taking bribes from Force Multiplier. Officials of the company and the bus agency pleaded guilty to federal charges, and voters took the bus agency out of existence.
Before DCS ceased to function, however, the cameras and technology involved were sold to Montreal-based BusPatrol. In August, BusPatrol and the committee charged with dissolving the DCS reached an agreement to transfer the camera program to school districts that wanted to continue the program. The system moved forward with BusPatrol handling the technology and ticketing.
As a result of that hand-off, motorists in more than a dozen school districts around the state are still receiving collection notices for violations noted by the bus cameras. Passing a stopped school bus violates state law and can carry a hefty fine. But in jurisdictions where the bus cameras are in use and tickets are based only on the videos, a lighter fine of $300 has been set.
A person answering the phone at AMS insisted that “just a couple days ago we had an offender in the city” of Pflugerville for the same offense.
The ticket, according to BusPatrol CEO Jean Souliere, was sent out on June 4, with a follow-up notice in August.
“These citations cannot be issued in a city where there is not a local ordinance in place,” Souliere said. “This is a valid ticket issued for a violation that occurred in Austin.”
He added that there is an agreement with the Pflugerville school district to ticket school bus violators and has been for some time.
“In fact, the school district asked that we continue,” he said.
It’s not the first time mysterious school bus camera tickets have arisen from the DCS debacle.
In February, an Austin woman received a collections notice on bogus West Lake Hills letterhead for an alleged violation. The fine was dropped after the city announced it was not participating in the program and would not be part of any collections.
The cameras apparently are still operating on buses in some of the districts that struck deals with DCS/Force Multiplier. The technology would give BusPatrol access to the video cameras and allow them to send out tickets, although whether the tickets are enforceable is in dispute.
“At the end of the day, Pflugerville or any other district that is benefitting from this technology can stop,” Souliere said. “All of them walked into this with the best intentions and, yes, it’s been a bit messy.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].