False-alarm fines to rise

County Council passes measure after Aug. veto by executive

September 09, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

For the first time since taking office last year with several new members, the County Council has swept aside an executive veto and disagreed with the county executive.

By a vote of 6 to 1, the council overrode a veto and enacted legislation to increase the fines that businesses and homeowners pay when county fire and police respond to false alarms. The fines take effect within 30 days of the vote or earlier, whenever County Executive David R. Craig signs the bill into law.

Instead of a $50 fine, owners will receive a warning for a first offense, followed by escalating fines up to $1,000 for repeat incidents within the same year.

Craig vetoed the bill last month, saying that there is no data showing that stiffer fines and penalties would serve as a deterrent. He declined to comment on the council's override.

Council members and fire officials disagreed.

"Fines are a deterrent at any level," said Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who introduced the bill in July. "Our purpose is not to collect money here but to get people focused on false alarms."

Albert H. Bair, president of the Harford County Fire and EMS Association, wrote in a letter to the council that the legislation is desperately needed "to help us reduce the risk to both our firefighters and citizens.

"We cannot continue to respond to these calls especially, when property owners just laugh us off, when we show up," he wrote.

False alarms are increasing in frequency, requiring firefighters and their equipment to take part in pointless errands, officials said. In 2006, 1,255 false alarms were reported. So far this year that number is at 1,263. During June, fire companies responded to 30 false alarms at one hotel.

"There has never been a time when firefighters have not responded," said Councilman James V. McMahan, a former volunteer firefighter. "They go regardless."

Last year, the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, Harford's busiest, reported that of the 2,199 calls for services, 448 - or 20 percent - were false alarms. It costs companies as much as $1,200 per response, Bair said.

"You can see what this is costing taxpayers," said Guthrie. "This bill will get business owners to pay attention. They are not paying attention to $50 fines."

The new bill allows for one warning and an increased initial fine of $100, with $500 for the next occurrence, and $1,000 for subsequent incidents in the same year.

"In business, money talks," said Council President Billy Boniface. "Let's pass this and see if it makes a difference."

In July, Guthrie introduced the bill along with another measure aimed at raising fines for false alarms to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. Both bills passed the council on 6-1 votes, with Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, who had wanted an exemption for schools, the lone dissenter.

Craig signed the bill relating to sheriff's office calls but vetoed the fire bill. The county charter allows the county to override an executive veto with a vote of at least five members. There has not been an override enacted in several years, county administrators said.

Slutzky cast the only vote against the override, reiterating his concerns and adding that he feared hefty fines might cause users to turn off the alarms altogether. He also said appeals of the fines might result in numerous administrative hearings.

Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" Chenowith said the fines will not be enough, calling for better tracking of the calls and education for the public on how to maintain alarm systems.

Bair said volunteers have little time to educate the public on maintenance and would leave that task to manufacturers and installers of the systems.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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