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Amherst is fourth-highest in state for traffic fine revenue

Speed on the I-290 in the Town of Amherst and chances are better than most places that you'll get pulled over by police.

The highway is home to some of the busiest speed traps in the state.

That could be why Amherst Town Court raked in $3 million in 2015, ranking it 4th out of 1,219 town and village courts in New York State for the total revenue it collected, according to data from the state Comptroller's Office. It was surpassed by only the Town of Walkill in Orange County and the towns of Southampton and East Hampton in Suffolk County.

That didn't surprise Deputy Town Supervisor Steven Sanders, because Amherst is one of the biggest towns in the state, certainly in Western New York.

The town police chief told him the town's population doubles during the workday and the sheer volume of traffic means more traffic tickets.

"You would expect that Amherst is going to have a lot more speeding tickets than, say, Elma," Sanders said. "There's just a lot more cars driving on our roads than in a smaller town."

Most of the top revenue-generating courts in New York have major interstates running through them. Look at a color-coded map of the highest-generating courts and the Thruway and New York's interstate system is clearly defined.

In some cases, courts in towns with sparse populations bring in big dollars. Statewide, the Town of Walkill in Orange County, with only 28,000 residents, is home to the No. 1 revenue-generating court. The town has I-84 running through it.

Amherst, with more than 123,000 residents in its 52 square miles, has the I-290 and I-990, where vehicle and traffic laws are enforced by town police and State Police. Its court collected nearly $1 million more than its neighbor to the west, the Town of Tonawanda, which was second locally and 12th in the state.

The top 5 revenue-generating courts in Western New York were all in Erie County, in the towns of Cheektowaga, West Seneca and Hamburg. Last on the list locally is South Valley Town Court in Cattaraugus County, which collected $672 that year.

In Western New York, the top 10 revenue-generating courts all have major interstates running through them.

[Larger display of interactive map]

For example, the Town of North Harmony in Chautauqua County -- population 2,115 --  has I-86 and placed 7th locally with $595,952.

Town and village courts in New York collected $239 million in 2015. About 90 percent of that revenue is generated through fines, fees and surcharges on vehicle and traffic violations, according to a report from the state Comptroller's Office. Smaller amounts are generated from forfeited bail and violations of environmental, penal and other laws.

The 194 town and village courts in the eight counties of WNY collected $31.5 million in 2015. More than half -- $17.8 million -- stayed in the towns' and villages' coffers. About 39 percent -- $12.3 million -- went to Albany. And the rest went to the counties.

New York State Trooper John Betker uses a laser to detect the speed of oncoming traffic on Interstate-290 in Amherst on Monday, Jan. 30, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Ordinances and the amount of fines for violating them are up to the individual towns and villages, said Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the New York State Unified Court System.

"They set their own rules," he said. "They're a sovereign government."

In Amherst, vehicle and traffic court on Tuesday and Thursday mornings is busy, with lines routinely stretching out the doors of the court building on John James Audubon Parkway.

Troopers write tickets to ensure public safety and as a deterrent to bad driving habits, not to generate revenue, said Trooper James O'Callaghan, spokesman for State Police Troop A, which covers the Buffalo area.

"The last thing in our minds is how much the town is going to get or how much this person's going to pay," he said. "Honestly, the trooper or the person at your window is talking to you because you're speeding or using your cell phone while driving. We don't know the fine amounts. We don't know the surcharges the court charges, the DMV fines. All of that is irrelevant to us."

On a recent weekday morning, Trooper John Betker parked his marked car on an I-290 turnaround and checked the speeds of passing vehicles with a radar gun. Over 108,000 vehicles traveled daily on that stretch in 2012, according to the latest counts by the state Department of Transportation.

After only about a minute, Betker peeled out and pulled over a sedan clocked traveling 70 mph in the 55 mph zone.

It's a dangerous part of the job with traffic whizzing by, but essential to ensuring safety on local roadways, O'Callaghan said.

"If we're not out here at all, or at least visible, people will continue to raise their level of speed just a little bit every day because it becomes the norm," he said. "But when we're highly visible, when we're stopping vehicles, that's when people slowly start to think, 'Hey, maybe I should put down my phone. Maybe I should slow down.'"

Not all the top revenue-generating courts have busy highways.

Coming in at Number 13 on the local list, the Village of Kenmore is an outlier. It does not have a major highway. Kenmore police do, however, have a reputation as a place you don't want to speed through, have an expired inspection or registration sticker, or use a hand-held mobile device.

Village Court generated a total of $457,246 in 2015, and 83 percent -- $377,695 -- stayed in the Kenmore, the largest village in Western New York. That revenue accounted for 2 percent of the village's budget of $16.9 million. To run its court cost Kenmore nearly $96,000.

Peter J. Breitnauer, Kenmore's police chief, said he was unaware of the amount of revenue Village Court brings in, and also that it didn't matter.

"These guys could care less what the fines are," he said of officers. "They're going out there and doing their job to keep the public safe, keep our roads safe."

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