Salisbury Looking To Wrap Up Debate Over False Alarm Fees

SALISBURY – After months of deliberation, the Salisbury City Council voted twice to pass amended false alarm fees and is already discussing having the ordinances return a third time to be modified again.

The first ordinance regarding false alarm fees that came before the City Council this week on second reading states, “the City of Salisbury enacted a false alarm ordinance and recently received feedback from the citizens and businesses located within the city that the fines and fees associated with the ordinance may be too burdensome to the public and businesses located within the City.”

Under false alarm violations and penalties, the ordinance states, “if within a calendar year, the fire and/or police departments respond to more than two false alarms at the same location, response fees will be charged to the property owner. Failure to pay fees within 90 days of notification of the violation will result in a lien against the real property until the fees are satisfied and shall be collectible in the same manner as real estate taxes and accrue interest and penalties, if applicable, as allowed for unpaid real estate taxes as well.”

Newly installed and newly transferred alarm systems will be given a 30-day grace period to allow for correction of equipment and user errors. During the 30-day period, the alarm user will be allowed unlimited false alarms, as long as steps are being taken to correct any problems. The alarm company installing the new system or transferring a system shall notify the police and fire departments in writing of the new installation or transfer, including the effective date, within 10 days of the effective date.

For any violation occurring after the fourth false alarm response by the same responding department within the same calendar year, the person owning and/or in control of the subject real property shall be guilty of a municipal infraction and shall be subject to a fine of up to a maximum of $1,000 for each offense. The council removed the phrase “a minimum of $500.” Each false alarm response thereafter within the same calendar year shall constitute a separate offense.

The second ordinance that returned on second reading titled, “Setting Updated False Alarm Fees”, has the first and second false alarm occurrence costing nothing for both administrative processing fee and false alarm response fee. The third and each subsequent false alarm in a calendar year will cost a $25 administrative processing fee, and cut down the police response fee from $246 to $120 and the fire response fee from $272 to $135, all based on approximately half an hour response time.

The prior fees were based on Salisbury Police Department and Fire Department estimates that it took an hour of response time by a supervisor, dispatcher, two officers, administration and a clerk, as well as two gallons of fuel and the cost of wear and tear on the vehicles responding. Once evaluating the process, the departments cut the response time down to 30 minutes, therefore cutting the fees in half.

Alarm Engineering representative Ron Boltz, who had been working with the City Council the second time around to get the ordinances right, came before the City Council this week to continue a list of grievances with the ordinances.

“I thank you sincerely for re-examining the original ordinances … I understand that cutting the fee in half and reducing the minimum $500 fine language is a quick fix but I feel there is more work that needs to be done,” Boltz said.

According to Boltz, the proposed penalty of $120 for the third and subsequent alarm is still significantly higher than all other neighboring jurisdictions.

“Even though reduced to $120 that fee is mostly higher than the actual cost of responding and therefore exposes the city to liabilities as a result of legal challenges, and just to go back and refresh everybody’s memory that is how this whole issue came to light,” Boltz said.

In Boltz’s opinion, the fees based on a half hour of response time will remain to be a challenge to defend in court and end up as Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, Fla. did where the cities had to refund hundreds of thousands in false alarm fees.

“I also want to be making sure we don’t forget about my recommendation on enhanced call verification, the process of making two phone calls rather than one prior to the dispatch,” Boltz reminded the council. “I just don’t want it to fall off the radar because I firmly believe and more than willing to prove to you through case studies from the hundreds of jurisdictions that has been implemented and is mandatory that will save the city far more money than any fee will bring in revenue.”

Council Vice President Laura Mitchell agreed the council had more work to do.

“Including call verification that results in 78 percent instant reduction in false alarms, and I have found backup for that in national statistics,” she said. “It is pretty intriguing to me. If that is our goal to reduce false alarms, which is what we are trying to do here that seems like a very reasonable way to go.”

Council President Jacob Day, who sat at the dais in his first legislative session after being elected to join council, also agreed the council should discuss call verification further.

“I would love not to bring the fees back onto our agenda,” he said. “I would like to resolve this issue now so we can move on from here, so I am wondering if … we can get to what is a legally defensible fee structure that will not project the city to potential litigation in the future based solely on the structure and is reflective of the actual expenses the city would bear.”

City Administrator John Pick responded staff is still in the process of reviewing enhanced call verification from when it was first proposed, as well as the proposed fees.

“We are not ready to come back with a recommendation at this time,” he said.

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