Salisbury Council Approves Reduced False Alarm Charges

SALISBURY – An ordinance amending the city’s false alarm fees received its first required endorsement this week after being returned to the City Council after complaints were received the legislation was not accomplishing what it was set out to cure — a reasonable cost.

For many years, the city has had an ordinance that included a graduated fee schedule for fire and police false alarms. The purpose of the fee schedule is to encourage property owners to maintain and use their alarm systems to reduce the incidence of false alarms.

However, the city had determined the fee schedule exceeded the actual cost for either the police or fire departments to respond to false alarms, and in February the council voted to adopt new equitable false alarm fees.

Last week, during a work session, Alarm Engineering representative Ron Boltz warned the council that the proposed fines are still well above the area median and could do with further reduction. He explained that the new fees of about $250 per false alarm after the third call and $500 to $1,000 for each offense after the fourth call are off the charts when compared to surrounding areas.

The council promised to take Boltz’s suggestions into account when further developing the false alarm ordinance. In particular, the council agreed to slash penalties in half, billing everything against the expectation of a half-hour response time. The original fines were developed against an anticipated hour-long response time.

“We had changed our recent fire false alarm ordinance, which blended fees and fines and separated them out to be legally defensible,” Council President Terry Cohen explained this week. “In doing so, there is some debate over the way the phrasing was so we ended up with an unintended consequence.”

Following several amendments, the council voted unanimously to approve the first ordinance to return in first reading titled “Violations and Penalties with Regard to False Alarm Fees and to False Alarm Fines within the City.”

The ordinance states,  “the City of Salisbury recently enacted a false alarm ordinance and thereafter 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 installation 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 first reading titled, “Setting Updated False Alarm Fees”, has the first and second false alarm occurrence cost 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 council voted unanimously to approve the false alarm fees.

“We will be looking at other possible adjustments to this as other information comes in but we feel in the short term this would provide a balance in ensuring police and fire are able to recover some of their costs,” Cohen said as the council voted unanimously to approve the false alarm fees. “For those who have alarm systems and never have false alarms, or for those who don’t have alarm systems it would be unfair to expect them to deal a great deal of subsidy for those who do.”