GMF “Speed Trap” Status Igniting Sparks

The common joke at one local eatery in Green Mountain Falls is: “When you approach the town’s four-way stop, make sure you have a witness before proceeding. You may need proof in court.”

Or as some locals profess, “Slam your brakes to the floor when you drive into town, or else open your pocketbook.”

Speed enforcement has become a bustling business in this small Ute Pass town, with traffic ticket revenue projected to exceed $20,000 for 2011, a nearly eight-fold hike from previous years when these types of offenses were often overlooked. And according to the latest detailed report compiled by head Marshal Tim Bradley, the town has issued 304 traffic-related citations and warnings since last summer. That’s when a new aggressive campaign was launched against speeding motorists, careless drivers, drunk-driving offenders and those who didn’t buckle up. Flashing lights, detecting the next motorist snagged along Ute Pass Avenue or a popular side street, have become a familiar sight in Green Mountain Falls.

In addition, the days of the town’s traditional status of operating with a town marshal office may be screeching to a halt with a proposed effort to develop a full-fledged police department. At least one local law enforcement car has been re-painted to display this new image. A public hearing on a resolution to make this change official is scheduled for Dec. 5.

These “big-time” law enforcement developments have generated mixed opinions with some business operators accusing the department of trying to fill up depleting town coffers through aggressive ways to target local residents and visitors, while other civic leaders say it’s hard to argue with success and cite a notable decline in people driving way too fast through town.

In any case, talk of the town’s evolving speed crackdown, with comparisons drawn to Fairplay and Alma, have dominated local conversations.

“It is absolutely outrageous,” blasted Ben Stephens, co- owner of The Pantry restaurant, a familiar mainstay for local rumors and active discussions regarding GMF politics and policies. “This town has become a speed trap. A lot of people are upset. It’s bad enough with the economy the way it is.”

A few other business folks echo similar sentiments and worry about the image of overzealous law enforcement. They say the town’s new-found reputation is stopping repeat customers from coming back to town and credit this image to a decline in business. Several business operators have made their opinions known at recent town hall meetings.

Stephens, a frequent town hall critic, isn’t afraid to poke fun at the controversy in a way that helps his restaurant. Several humorous signs displayed at The Pantry offer a unique promotion: A 10 percent meal discount for patrons who receive a speeding ticket by GMF or by any other local law enforcement entity.

“If they are going to bring them to town (for court and to pay speeding tickets), I might as well give them something to eat,” quipped Stephens. The Pantry owner said he got the idea when his restaurant was nearly filled to capacity during a recent weekday morning. And to his surprise, nearly all the tables were occupied by delinquent speeders who had local court hearings that day. “It was one of the best week days I had for awhile,” added Stephens, who admits the marshal and a leading trustee have gotten a kick out of the promotion.

On a more serious note, he is afraid that the town’s reputation as a target for speeding and traffic offenders may scare off potential customers. “It leaves a foul taste in your mouth, no matter how good the food is or the service we offer,” explained Stephens.

Why argue with success?

However, not everyone shares the business owner’s views.

Mayor Pro Tem Dick Bratton, a long-time local resident, contends that Bradley’s aggressive anti-speeding program is working. “It has been very effective. People are slowing down,” said Bratton.

And while acknowledging that the anti-speeding policies have sparked some criticism from a few business owners, he believes that a “silent majority” of residents actually support the effort.

Bratton, who recently favored a bid to lower the speed limit along the main thoroughfare, emphasizes that Ute Pass Avenue has a designated pedestrian route that is part of the American Discovery Trail. “We have a lot of families, with baby carriages, who walk along this road,” said the mayor pro tem. “We don’t want to stop people from coming into town, we just want them to slow down.”

“We had complaints about people speeding through town,” said Bratton, in explaining the impetus behind the initial crackdown. Bratton admits that previous marshals didn’t do too much regarding traffic offenses. Traffic ticket revenue from 2010 was posted at only $2,600, according to city budget figures.

In a detailed report released to the GMF Board of Trustees last week, Bradley maintained that the program has been a definite success.

“The fact is, the traffic enforcement efforts have made an impact and drivers have slowed down,” stated the marshal in his Nov. 15 report. “We are observing more drivers slowing down through town, making more efforts to stop at stop signs and slow at yield signs. This was our goal.”

And contrary to some of the stories circulating at local eateries, Bradley contends that 49 percent of the traffic stops occurring over a 165-day period have resulted in warnings. Except for one case, he said his department, which last summer mainly consisted of himself and another deputy, only gave speeding tickets when motorists exceeded the limit by 10-miles-per hour. But for inclement weather, this leniency range will only be reduced to five miles above the limit, notes the marshal.

The idea of an explosion in law enforcement-generated revenue has fueled much controversy, with some leaders opposing plans to rely on this much ticket revenue to make ends meet. The marshal’s proposed budget for next year was reduced by approximately $35,000 as city hall was forced to operate with 2006 spending levels to balance its books. For next year, the city is projecting to only take in $8,800 in revenue from traffic offenses.

That means, the town may have to explore other techniques to curb delinquent motorists, such as installing electronic speed monitoring devices. It probably won’t have the resources to snag speeding motorists in the same fashion as in recent months. Bradley wanted to continue an aggressive program with the use of three full-time officers. But with current budget restrictions, that won’t happen.

According to City Clerk/Treasurer and long-time resident Chris Frandina, the main problem areas are the town’s main thoroughfare as you enter and leave GMF. The initial hill motorists go down as they approach Green Mountain Falls from the Hwy. 24 (west) exit, requires great breaking skills to not exceed the posted 25-mile-per-hour speed limit.

In an effort to develop a more user-friendly system, Frandina said the town last fall adopted a law enabling speeding offenders to get two assessment points removed, without appearing in court, if they pay their tickets within a 20-day period. According to Frandina, the town offers a number of options for traffic offenders.

When the town initiated its anti-speeding campaign, some offenders complained that the town didn’t have a way for them to get reduced sentences and to make plea deals. A speeding offense often nets four assessment points on a person’s license and can result in increasing insurance costs. Some offenders are more worried about the assessed points than the money, as three consecutive speeding offenses can result in the revocation of a person’s driver’s license.

New Falls Police Department

The GMF Marshal’s Office is also engaged in another mini-controversy: A change in status to become an official Green Mountain Falls Police Department. Bratton says the trustees have set a public hearing for Dec. 5 to decide the fate of this plan.

Bratton, who once proposed a similar plan only to see it abruptly denied, admits he is not totally sold on the idea.

“There is a lot of sentimentality about the having a town marshal’s office,” said Bratton, who says the board wants to hear more from local residents. “We have a lot of old-timers here who really like that tradition.”

From Bradley’s perspective, the change would ensure better officer safety and generate more respect. He has told several trustee members that when motorists approach his vehicle on Hwy. 24, and see the name “marshal,” posted on the car, they speed right past him. But when the name “police” was displayed on the car, they drove quite cautiously.

Another possible compromise is to use both titles when referring to the office.

Since its inception in the late 19th century, Green Mountain Falls has operated with a marshal’s office, with the image of a head law officer on horse often prevailing. In recent decades, town has abounded with a colorful array of marshal stories, running the gamutfrom one officer who accidentally put a car in the lake, to another who tried to set an arrest record after getting upset, to some who drove intoxicated bar-patrons home so they wouldn’t get into trouble. There is even a story of a former newspaper editor who wrestled a gun away from the marshal. The office has sometimes suffered from a lack of respect.

According to locals, the town often alternated between “Barney Fife,” or “Wyatt Earp”-cowboy types, when it came to the head marshal.

However, elected leaders and town officials say those days are long gone. Bratton admits the town has come a long way based on its previous reputation.