An increasing number of malfunctioning burglar alarms in the county has virtually turned Harford deputies into part-time security guards.
Last year alone, deputies responded to 5,000 false alarms, at considerable cost to taxpayers.
To remedy the problem and return the deputies to the street where they're most needed, the County Council is considering raising the fines for false alarms. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4, in the County Council chambers at the County Courthouse on Main Street in Bel Air.
"We respond to some alarms three or four times a night," said DeWayne Curry, a spokesman for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, explaining the need for increased fines.
"Usually that's because an alarm has malfunctioned. But even if it's malfunctioning, we still have to check it out in case there's really a problem. We basically become a security service," he said.
In 1987, for example, the Sheriff's Office responded to 4,500 false alarms at an expense of $75,000.
But the number of false alarms rose significantly in 1991, Mr. Curry said.
Of the 5,281 burglar alarms deputies investigated, 5,000 were false alarms, he said. It cost Harford taxpayers $140,000 for the deputies' time to investigate those false alarms, Mr. Curry said.
Currently, homeowners and business operators whose alarms erroneously summon police more than three times during a 30-day period, or eight times in 12 months, are subject to a citation. For each subsequent false alarm, the business or homeowner is fined $30.
But that apparently hasn't encouraged homeowners or business operators to fix faulty alarms, said Mr. Curry.
Now, the council is considering more substantial fines.
With the fourth false alarm during a 30-day period, the alarm owner will be charged as follows under the proposed legislation:
* Fourth alarm: $25
* Fifth alarm: $50
* Sixth alarm: $75
* Seventh alarm: $75
* Eighth alarm: $75.
If a business or homeowner has more than eight false alarms in a 12-month period, each subsequent false alarm will carry a $150 fine under the proposal.
Part of the problem, said Mr. Curry, is that false alarms occur so regularly at some businesses that the owners won't investigate.
"There are some that go off every night at the same time, and the owner says, 'If we're locked up for the night, we're not coming out,' and they don't even look into it. They rely on us," said Mr. Curry.
"The message we're sending now is that if the alarm's malfunctioning, fix it."