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Tosa implements fee for burglary alarms

False alarms drain police resources, officials say

Jan. 5, 2012

The owner of property, business or residential, equipped with a security alarm must register that alarm with the Police Department and pay a $20 fee within the next 30 days.

(Editor's note: The deadline has been extended to Feb. 13. Read more here.)

The Common Council narrowly approved the alarm registration ordinance on a 9-7 vote Tuesday. The council was split on whether alarms cause enough extra work for police to warrant a fee or if it was unfair to charge property owners who already are paying more to enhance security.

Police Chief Barry Weber estimated his department responds to about 1,000 burglar alarms per year, and while each is taken seriously with at least two squads responding, all but two or three of those turn out to be false alarms.

The likelihood that police will be called to respond to an alarmed property is much higher than for other properties, and unlike a 911 response - in which information is gleaned from a live person - officers responding to an alarm generally don't know what's awaiting them on scene.

"People with alarms are getting more service than those without," Weber said.

Fee mania on horizon?

The city already charges a false alarm fee the second and subsequent times an alarm is triggered in error.

Alderman Bobby Pantuso argued that those false alarm fees could be reviewed and restructured to cover costs associated with response, rather than creating a new fee.

Overall, council members weren't opposed to asking property owners to provide contact information for keyholders and alarm companies, or to ask them to inform police about special circumstances such as dogs or disabled people on site. Those details would help determine possible problems and clear a scene more quickly, they said.

But money was a sticking point.

"We did a good job keeping taxes under control," Pantuso said. "I see fee mania starting to evolve, and this could be the start."

He foresees $20 in 2012 eventually becoming $30, $40 or more, since the fee will be charged annually.

'Flew under the radar'

This discussion is one that likely should have happened several months ago when the Budget Committee was reviewing the 2012 budget. Typically new fees and services are pointed out by staff and considered by the committee. Somehow, the alarm registration fee got overlooked.

The fee was passed with the entire budget's approval in November, and without the fee the city would face a $20,000 to $25,000 shortfall, Alderman Dennis McBride said.

Alderman Brian Ewerdt said he was caught by surprise when a constituent called after receiving a letter about the fee from the Police Department last month. Ewerdt didn't recall passing a fee during budget deliberations.

"It kind of flew under the radar to be honest," he said.

Ewerdt and many other aldermen have received calls from constituents who complained they are already paying quite a bit of money for their security alarms. This fee feels like "piling on," he said.

Alderman Michael Walsh called the extra police fee "the cost of doing business" and equated it to the many services residents pay for through taxes but don't necessarily use. For instance, a fourth school resource officer - the city pays 25 percent of the officer's salary - is being added to the middle school. His children don't attend public school, so they won't benefit directly from the addition.

"There are always instances where someone takes advantage of service not everyone enjoys," he said.

But Alderman Craig Wilson argued that burglar alarms create "a specific drain on community resources" and "increased likelihood of response to these premises." It's a safety issue and equates to fees to use the dump or license a pet, he said.

Property owners who have an alarm but don't register them will be charged a $50 late fee.

At a glance

The following is a breakdown of the how the Common Council members voted on requiring property owners to register their security alarms and pay a $20 fee.

In favor: Kathleen Causier, Peter Donegan, Tim Hanson, Jacqueline Jay, Dennis McBride, Eric Meaux, Jill Organ, Jason Wilke and Craig Wilson

Opposed: Cheryl Berdan, Don Birschel, Brian Ewerdt, Linda Nikcevich, Bobby Pantuso, Jeff Roznowski and Michael Walsh

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