Drivers cited for speeding, rolling through a stop sign and other minor traffic infractions in Spring Lake Park will have a way to avoid having a ticket on their record.

But it's going to take some time and some cash (although probably less cash than the ticket itself).

The City Council, at the urging of the police chief, has approved a city-run traffic diversion program even as the Minnesota state auditor has criticized the practice. Currently, 21 Minnesota cities and 15 counties operate diversion programs.

Here's how it works: A police officer issues a ticket but hands the driver a flier with an alternative. Pay a fee to the city, take an online class and get the ticket dismissed. The driver's record stays clean and the city pockets the money instead of the state, which collects for traffic citations.

"The motivation is trying to be compassionate with the public," said Spring Lake Park Police Chief Doug Ebeltoft. "Sometimes you are just not thinking and you do something you normally don't do. It provides the means and ability to address it and learn from it and change the behavior. It's a way to build bridges vs. burn them down."

The program is "purely voluntary," the chief said.

The city's traffic diversion will cost $115 for a single traffic offense, less than a speeding ticket, with traffic fines now approaching $200.

Spring Lake Park is just 2.2 square miles, but busy Central Avenue, University Avenue and County Road 10 all run through it, and city police issue more than 20,000 traffic citations a year, the chief estimated.

Traffic diversion programs are ­popular in the north metro, with Circle Pines, Lexington, Centerville, Lino Lakes, and Coon Rapids all operating them. The cities of Big Lake, North Branch, Wyoming and Becker, as well as Sherburne and Chisago counties, also have traffic diversion programs. The state auditor, which recently researched traffic diversion programs, found none in Hennepin, Ramsey, Dakota, Scott or Washington counties.

Trial program tested

Ebeltoft said he hopes to roll out the Spring Lake Park program sometime in 2014. The city conducted a one-month trial run from Oct. 28 through Nov. 28. During that period, Spring Lake Park issued 183 traffic citations. Of those, 113 drivers completed the diversion program, the chief said.

Buoyed by the response, the City Council approved a permanent program. A third-party vendor will provide the online education course. The city will spend $8,000 to $10,000 to purchase the online program and then $2,000 to $3,000 for annual maintenance and upgrades.

Juveniles and those with a commercial driver's license are not eligible for traffic diversion, Ebeltoft said.

The chief did not provide any estimates of the revenue the city expects to collect with the program. He said 25 percent will go into the city's general fund and 75 percent to traffic improvements — electronic speed signs and flashing stop signs.

Auditor faults programs

In November, the state auditor issued a report critical of local traffic diversion programs as largely unregulated, suggesting ways the Legislature can better rein in the practice. According to the report, the 36 participating cities and counties collected $606,000 from diversion programs in 2012, up from $505,000 in 2010.

"Minnesota drivers experience vastly different consequences for traffic violations depending upon where the violation occurs. Allowing hundreds of local governments to independently decide which violations to report to the Department of Public Safety threatens the integrity of Minnesota's driving records," the report said. "Accurate and complete tracking of traffic violations can help remove dangerous drivers from Minnesota's roads."

According to the auditor's report, fees for traffic diversion and the education requirement vary widely. "Existing local traffic diversion programs reviewed by the OSA vary from an eight to ten minute online course to live sessions lasting more than two hours conducted by law enforcement personnel at the local law enforcement center," the report said.

Ebeltoft said he's aware that the state auditor is critical of the programs but is moving forward anyway.

"There is no legislation or laws that prohibit it," Ebeltoft said. "The benefit far outweighs the controversy. The benefit is on the public side if they choose to use it."