An aluminum traffic signal control cabinet, badly dented with its doors splayed open, lay on the concrete floor of Macon’s Central Services Department workshop Tuesday.
The cabinet, which costs about $12,000, was “damaged beyond repair” in a traffic accident at the corner of Second and Hemlock streets, said Earnest Queen, assistant director of Central Services.
Adding city workers’ labor to replace the cabinet, the total cost of the damage came to $13,517.72, according to a Central Services compilation. A bill for that amount was sent to General Casualty insurance April 21 but hasn’t yet been paid.
It may not be. And if it is, the next probably won’t.
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When cars and trucks crunch into one another and other objects on Macon streets, the city’s traffic control devices are often collateral damage; and despite some effort to collect from drivers and insurance companies, taxpayers often wind up stuck with the bill.
Police reports and a Central Services compilation list 19 incidents in the past nine months, either through reports on the accidents or in one-line billing summaries.
Insurance companies and vehicle owners had paid for damages on just six of those cases as of May 26, but often those bills aren’t sent out until sometime after the damage is done, and even approved insurance claims often take a few months to process.
Altogether, it appears that repairing damage from the 19 incidents cost $68,215.54, including parts and labor. Reimbursement came to just $17,424.68 -- and $3,917.26 of that came from selling the wrecked equipment to Schnitzler Southeast/Macon Iron as scrap metal.
For several years, the City Attorney’s Office has sent out bills for damage to corporate vehicle owners and some uninsured drivers, said Clay Murphey, the city’s interim external affairs director. That task has fallen to legal assistant Carole Portwood, a part-time employee who is retiring soon.
Interim City Attorney Martha Welsh said she’s checking on how billing has been handled, in anticipation of Portwood’s retirement. Portwood has told her that in the three years the City Attorney’s Office has handled billing for signal damage, about $300,000 has been collected, Welsh said.
Sending out letters requesting payment for traffic signal damage is not a normal function of the attorney’s office, but wherever the duty is assigned there does need to be a stronger focus on collections, Welsh said.
“What will happen going forward, especially with Carole retiring and things moving around here, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s on the forefront, and it’s going to be soon.”
The proposed 2012 budget for Central Services includes a $28,000 line-item for “signal replacements.” That doesn’t include the cost of tools and labor from city work crews.
Even apart from recent storm damage, signal replacement is a repetitive cost, Central Services Director Gene Simonds told City Council members at a budget hearing two weeks ago. In recent months, 10 pedestrian signals in street medians have been hit, and three traffic control boxes -- costing up to $12,000 each -- were “totally wiped out,” he said.
Naturally, the city seeks reimbursement for such damage but doesn’t always get paid, Simonds said.
“We are doing that, but our success in collecting is not very good,” he said. “Probably less than 50 percent.”
The list from Central Services shows only about one-fifth of recent damage has been paid for, but many of those bills were sent out in the past couple of months.
Damage costs vary widely, ranging from $470.04 when a Pepsi truck driver obliviously flattened a traffic signal pole during a right turn from Guy Paine Road onto Houston Avenue on Feb. 15, to a whopping $15,595.82 in damage done Nov. 20 when one driver apparently ran a red light at the corner of Pine and Second streets, knocking another car into a traffic signal cabinet.
Pepsi Beverage Co. was sent the bill for the first crash March 7. As of late May, it hadn’t been paid, according to Central Services’ records.
The bill for the destroyed signal cabinet was sent Dec. 10 to Auto-Owners Insurance Co. and Infinity Auto Insurance, and also remained unpaid.
Most of the damage falls into the $1,000 to $6,000 range, with the average cost running $3,590.29 per incident.
Much of the cost stems from accidents at intersections that took out signals as incidental damage, like the rental-car driver who rear-ended a Maconite on Nov. 28 at Pio Nono Avenue and Mercer University Drive. That tallied $6,137.48 in damage. The claim sent to State Farm Insurance on March 3 was unpaid as of May 26.
One man had a seizure Feb. 24 and hit “multiple street and traffic control signs” with his pickup before hitting a parked car near the corner of Riverside Drive and Pierce Avenue.
That did $981.28 in damage to signals. The claim sent March 3 to Travelers Insurance hadn’t been paid by May 26.
Despite the wide variation in individual accidents, both rates of damage and reimbursement are relatively constant from year to year, Murphey said.
“We’re probably right where we always are, frankly,” he said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.