Fees, fines for alarms opposed

City residents to pay $20 a year to register systems

`People are irate about it'

Law was passed in effort to cut down on false calls

November 10, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

When burglar alarms trigger calls to emergency dispatchers, Baltimore police officers respond with lights blazing and sirens blaring. The Police Department treats every burglary alarm as if it were real. More often than not, however, police discover nothing but a false alarm, a problem plaguing cities throughout the nation.

Last year, the City Council enacted a law that requires registration fees for security systems and imposes fines for alarms that consistently cry wolf. The intent was to reduce the false calls while offsetting the cost of responding to them.

Now residents are crying foul over the law, complaining that the fines and fees are too steep.

"People are irate about it," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who was chairman of the taxation subcommittee that studied the issue last year before the council approved the legislation that April.

The company hired in July to administer the program, ACS of Dallas, has been notifying alarm companies for the past three months that they must register with the city and that they must provide ACS with the addresses of their customers. ACS began billing those customers for registration fees and fines last month.

The annual registration fee for alarm system users -- owners of homes and businesses -- is $20. Alarm companies pay $50 to register annually.

Companies that do not register will be fined $1,000.

Fines to residential and commercial users kick in after the first two false alarms. Fines range, for residential users, from $50 for the third false alarm to $1,000 for the 14th. Businesses pay as much as $2,000.

Mitchell said the council may revisit the law to determine whether registration fees should be charged once, not annually. But, he added, no amendments have been introduced.

Sammy Moon, who lives in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood, said the council should reconsider the law. He said the city has been disingenuous in letters that state that the fees and fines are meant to reduce false alarms.

"If they wanted to create a fund to cover the costs of responding to false alarms, just tell me that," said Moon, 54. "What is the relationship between reducing false alarms and registering them and issuing fines?"

ACS, which also administers the city's red-light traffic cameras, said such programs usually reduce false alarms by 30 percent. Several jurisdictions throughout Maryland, including Baltimore County, operate similar false-alarm programs.

Last year, the city Police Department responded to about 129,000 burglar alarms. Nearly 97 percent of those, or 125,000, were false. At an estimated $40 a call, the city spent $5 million on false alarms.

Those numbers mirror national figures reported in a U.S. Justice Department study last year showing that 98 percent of the 38 million burglar alarms that police received in 1998 were false, costing $1.5 billion nationally.

"It's frustrating," Chief of Patrol Carl Gutberlet said. "We spend quite a bit of time responding to false alarms that we could be using toward preventative crime enforcement."

An owner of Timonium-based alarm company Techmark Corp. said the $50 it must pay to register is worth the price.

"It's one more step in making companies reputable," said Terri Annis, co-owner of Techmark. "I do believe that they do reduce false alarms."

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