February 7, 2009 in City

County considers alarm fees

Sheriff asks commissioners to look at program similar to city’s
Staff writer
 

The cost of security may go up soon for Spokane Valley and county residents who have burglar alarms.

Spurred by a successful program in the city of Spokane, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich wants the county and other cities to charge an annual fee to residents and business owners who use security alarms.

“We just think it’s time to move forward with this,” said sheriff’s Lt. Steve Jones, who along with Knezovich made the pitch to a lukewarm Spokane County Commission this week and will meet with Spokane Valley City Council members next week. The goal, Jones said, is “to keep home and business owners responsible for keeping those alarms working properly.”

Spokane requires all owners with security systems connected to a police response to register every year. That ensures that responders have updated contact information.

The city also requires owners to pay $25 for home alarms and $35 for business alarms yearly, Spokane Police Lt. Glenn Winkey said. Each false alarm costs the responsible homeowner an additional $85; the penalty for business owners is $165.

The fees are intended to help offset the cost of pulling police officers from other responsibilities to investigate false alarms.

Last year, city officers responded to about 2,000 false alarms. But those calls are down from the 7,100 false alarms reported during the last year before the ordinance took effect.

In addition, the registration fees and false alarm fines generated more than $400,000 for the city last year.

“We estimated it was costing us $750,000 a year to do nothing but respond to false alarms,” Winkey said. “If you take a 70 percent reduction in that … and now your officer is being productive somewhere else, the total cost benefit to the city is immense.”

Jones gave commissioners examples of how one or more deputies often respond to alarms at businesses, only to wait sometimes hours before they can reach an owner to secure what may be nothing more than an unlocked door.

And unlike the city’s fine-as-you-go system, the county’s 1989 ordinance gives home and business owners a free pass for the first two false alarms during a six-month period. The county then starts charging escalating fines for the third, fourth and fifth offenses. But the clock restarts every half year.

“People have told me that they shut their alarms off until the six months is gone … so they avoid the fine,” Jones said.

In addition to the free passes, the county requires deputies to write up two-page affidavits and send them to a clerk. That county employee then forwards the reports to another clerk in Spokane County District Court, who then gives the citation to a judge.

Last year, the county billed $5,200 worth of false-alarm fines, Jones said.

“So, we are not recovering our costs,” he said. “We are subsidizing private business. When they sell their alarms, they say the sheriff’s office will come running.”

But under the city’s program, a separate company handles all the paperwork and billing. For providing that service, a company based in Baltimore gets 25 percent of the fine and registration proceeds, Winkey said.

“It’s very cumbersome having a false-alarm citation program going through the court system,” Winkey said.

But the city’s program is not without its detractors, said Rick Creeger, who 20 years ago started A-1 Security Systems in Spokane.

“I’ve had several people cancel because of (the city’s annual) fee,” Creeger said. “I sometimes pay the fee to keep their business.”

To avoid the city’s false alarm fee, Creeger suggests that his customers tailor their security systems so that a tripped alarm sends a phone call to their cell phone or a neighbor rather than the police.

“It kind of defeats the purpose. Older people rely on” calls to emergency responders, Creeger said. “But they are bound to make mistakes.”

Commissioner Mark Richard also questioned the annual registration fee even though he agreed with Jones and Knezovich that the county’s ordinance needs to be updated.

“It’s very frustrating, as a citizen, to be paying an annual fee,” Richard said. “It feels like you are being held hostage … and paying for the noncompliant.”

Richard asked if there were a way to require mandatory registration for the system owners so that deputies would avoid waiting for hours to contact home or business owners.

“I want to be very careful that the mechanism doesn’t become a revenue generator,” Richard said. “Are there ways to do that without shifting the cost to the citizens?”

Knezovich said the new ordinance would simply recover costs, not make money.

“There has to be some way to get my people free from dealing with false alarms so they can do their jobs,” he said.

Commissioner Bonnie Mager asked Knezovich whether his clerical staff could handle the paperwork so that the county could save the money the city is paying the company in Baltimore.

Knezovich reminded the commissioners that he had to cut four patrol deputy positions during the budget cuts for this year.

“Each and every member of my staff is tasked to do multiple jobs and duties,” he said. “I don’t know how you can expect more of the staff without more help.”

Jim Emacio, the chief deputy civil prosecuting attorney, asked why the county should consider changing its ordinance when the majority of the 788 false alarms last year came from Spokane Valley.

“Why don’t they take the lead? It doesn’t make any sense for us to do this if they are not on board,” Emacio said. “I don’t want to do their work.”

Jones said he would present a similar proposal to Spokane Valley officials on Tuesday night.

“It would be great if we could all be on the same page,” Jones said. “It would be less confusing for business and home owners.”

Reporter Thomas Clouse can be reached at (509) 459-5495, or by e-mail at tomc@spokesman.com


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