The Union City, TN, City Council voted on second and final reading to replace the existing ordinance setting fire alarm fees.
The ordinance new sets a $25 fine to residents or business owners who have a third or more false fire alarm within a 12-month period. The changes also call for all alarm systems to be registered with the city and a $25 fine for the owners who do not register them. There is no fee to register the alarm systems.
New Haven, CT, Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee heard police Neighborhood Services Officer Joe Avery’s testimony at City Hall Wednesday evening as it considered a proposed hike in fines the police department hopes will cut New Haven’s
false alarms in half.
The city has had false-alarm fines on the books since 2004 — $45 for a fourth offense and $75 after that. But it has collected just $31 since 2006 due to software that “blew up,” taking all of the department’s alarm registrations with it.
Now, Avery said, the department is armed with new software to replace the nearly 30-year-old original. It
is ready and able to collect fines the new ordinance would set at $75 for the second offense, $150 for a third offense, and $250 for each additional false alarm.
“This particular alarm ordinance has a little more bite to it,” Avery said. “What we’re doing is making it mandatory for people to get their alarms fixed. In the past, nobody got their alarms fixed and nobody cared much because half the time they got fined and half the time they didn’t.”
Near the top of the list of alarm delinquents, he said, are a number of banks, large businesses and even city buildings that have each racked up as many as 30-40 false alarms per year.
“The Board of Ed was a big problem at one time,” Avery said, “but not anymore. The library downtown goes off, but all we can do is work with them to make it better.”
Despite the higher fines, city Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts said the city’s main goal is reducing false alarms, not fining residents and businesses. The $75 second-offense fine, he said, would be waived if the ticketed alarm owner attends a free class on how to reduce false alarms.
“This is not going to be a revenue stream,” he said. “We don’t expect to make money on this.”
The new alarm ordinance would also create new rules for alarm companies, which would be required to register with the city and file lists of their customers with the police department. Companies would not be charged any licensing fees. Still, alarm industry representatives Robert McVeigh and Carl E. Spiegel took issue with the registration requirement, arguing that it violates a state law that bars cities and towns from imposing separate licenses on alarm installers.
“Somebody failing to register would not be permitted to work,” Spiegel said, “and if they’re not permitted to work the city is in violation of the state statute. It’s that simple.”
Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden maintained registration would merely allow the city to check to make sure companies operating in New Haven have the proper state license. Spiegel insisted state law does not allow for that kind of scrutiny.
“I’m telling you there’s a state law that says you can’t do what you plan to do,” he said.
Committee chairman Alexander Rhodeen, Ward 13, and the four other aldermen present insisted the registration requirement would not be a burden to alarm companies with the proper permit. They called it essential to prevent unlicensed companies from escaping accountability.
“I’m not an attorney, but it sounds as if we’re heading down the path of ‘We can break the law and you can’t catch us, so why even bother checking,’” Rhodeen said. “The requirement is pretty basic, and so I’m not swayed by an argument that says you could be doing lots of illegal things and we wouldn’t know.”
For now, however, the committee tabled the new ordinance. Rhodeen urged Bolden to come to next month’s meeting with clarifications of the state law.
“My feeling is that given the time that has gone into this, we want to get it correct,” Rhodeen said.
If the ordinance clears the committee in August, it could come before the full Board of Aldermen in September. If it passes, Avery said, the new fines would go into effect within 90 days. The city would begin contacting alarm company customers — roughly 30 percent of New Haven residents — to re-register their alarms with police.
The decline in alarm dispatches, he said, could have a noticeable effect on the level of service the police department is able to provide.
“I think it’s going to decrease police response times to a lot of different crimes,” he said. “When you have two officers at a time tied up on a false alarm call waiting for someone to come check their door, and there’s a gunshot down the street, those officers can’t leave, especially if it’s an unsecured house, so reducing those alarms would have great benefits.”
Wichita, KS, City Council members altered a plan to charge people with monitored alarm services $3 a month and businesses $9 a month.
Instead, they are poised to charge $1 a month to residents, perhaps $2 or $2.50 to businesses and $9 to high-rise buildings, which require several fire engines for even minor alarms.
There are an estimated 32,000 licensed alarm systems in the city.
Without fees of some type, Fire Chief Ron Blackwell said, the city may have to cut one fire engine and five squad trucks, which would almost certainly reduce response times to emergencies.
Currently, everyone gets one false alarm free. After that, the city bills $40 for each unnecessary call, though City Manager Robert Layton said the city hasn't collected recently because of data glitches between city and Sedgwick County systems.
The new plan would increase the false alarm fee with each incident, though no numbers were specified.
Layton said many other cities have similar sliding scales for false alarms.
Council members hope that will entice those with security systems to arm them more carefully to reduce false alarms.
Mayor Carl Brewer said none of the proposed cuts — including the elimination of 101 city jobs, or 3 percent, many through attrition — is attractive.
"We're not going to get everything we want and we're not going to be able to make everyone happy," he said. "This isn't easy, but every household in the city is going through this same thing."