Joe Simmons checks out the alarm system panel in his Holland-area home. He installed the system several years ago when the area had a rash of break-ins.
Joe Simmons checks out the alarm system panel in his Holland-area home. He installed the system several years ago when the area had a rash of break-ins.

Archived Story

Alarmed into compliance

Published 8:39pm Saturday, July 20, 2013

Joe Simmons has had an alarm system installed on his Holland-area home for nearly six years — ever since a string of burglaries in the area — and has never had the police called to his home as a result of it.

That’s why it burns him up that he has to pay a city registration fee for his alarm system every year.

“I’m paying a tax every year for something I’ve never done,” he said.

The end of June marked the fourth fiscal year in which the city has charged fees for homeowners and businesses that cause police officers to respond because their burglary or robbery alarms go off needlessly.

The program is accomplishing its goal, Suffolk Police Maj. Stephanie Burch said.

“It’s a huge benefit to us,” she said. “We have reduced (false) alarms by 46 percent. That results in a redistribution of our patrol officers.”

At least two officers respond to every alarm call and are usually there for at least 15 minutes, ensuring nothing is amiss, Burch said. Fewer false alarms means fewer officers tied up needlessly.

“You’re able to redeploy those resources to be available to other calls, and it means reduced response times to legitimate calls for service,” Burch said.

The city implemented the ordinance in fiscal year 2009, but didn’t start charging fees until the next year to give folks time to get used to the new program.

The department decided to introduce the program as a means of reducing the false alarms that took up officers’ time and potentially put them in danger.

But critics — like Simmons, who has written to City Council representatives more than once about the issue — say they shouldn’t have to pay to register their alarms and don’t like that an out-of-state company, Alarm Tracking and Billing Services of Colorado, manages the program for the city. That contract was recently re-bid, and Burch said they are negotiating with the low bidder.

Simmons notes that he sees the sense in trying to reduce false alarms and doesn’t mind that repeat offenders are fined.

“If I’m having problems, fine me,” he said. He doesn’t even mind annual registration. But the registration fee, he added, “is like giving a speeding ticket to everyone who comes by just to make sure you get the right one.”

Homeowners with burglar alarms must pay a $25 registration with a $10 renewal fee each year.

Others say the city has tried to hike program revenue by labeling calls as false that really were not. Officers on the scene make the determination by looking for evidence — doors forced opened, for instance — that a criminal was actually there.

The statistics would seem to support the critics — the percentage of calls labeled as false jumped from 85.5 to 98 the first year the program charged fees.

But Burch said that’s because the department was better educated on what constituted a false alarm. Before the program, they only labeled human error (such as entering an incorrect code on the panel) as a false alarm. But they learned that improper installation and maintenance can also be avoided.

“How we defined false alarms changed when we implemented the ordinance, but not for the purpose of gaining income,” Burch said. “It was based on what the alarm industry was telling us.”

Burch said the department has gotten only a handful of appeals since the program started. (There’s a fee to file an appeal, too.) They will also automatically waive all false alarms during unusual events like hurricanes that cause a large number of false alarms, thanks to windows and doors rattling and extended power outages.

Burch likened the number of false alarms to what would happen if 97 percent of 911 calls were made-up stories.

“That would not be acceptable,” she said. “An alarm is a good tool if used properly and maintained properly. If not, it is a drain on tax-funded resources. Programs like the false alarm program help us put the cost on the person using the services and reduce the cost to the rest of the taxpayers.”

  • Roger Leonard

    When this was instituted, many claimed and rightfully so; that it was another way to generate fees and taxes to spend as the City Manager may choose… Remember, we have a council that almost never changes the city manager’s budget, so that is definitely true… Any Idea how she might divert such sums? Does fluff for a pay raise come to mind?

    In reality, this was a money grab, pure and simple. It makes people in Suffolk less safe, because they now install un-monitored alarm systems and avoid the fees. Another of many unplanned and unintended consequences of a poorly thought out policy! So many examples, so many missteps…

    Suggest Removal

  • JJ08

    This False Alarm Reduction program is troubling on many levels. Before I lay them out I’ll mention that if the City could truly save money with a false alarm reduction program it would be wise to consider supporting it.

    1. As the article points out, after initiating the program the False Alarm Rate rose and has remained elevated since. That’s not a good outcome for a false alarm reduction program.

    2. Officer Burch explains this rise as a result of a change in the way False Alarms were defined upon program implementation. This statement is shocking, it completely discredits the program. You cannot change the definition of what a false alarm is right at the moment you institute the false alarm reduction program.

    3. The numbers aside, what is the mechanism for bringing the false alarm numbers down? During the time when the registration fee was implemented the program received media attention and awareness was brought to the public about the problem. But what has been done since to educate people about the false alarm problem? Anymore the $10 annual fee is just another bill that I pay, it isn’t spurring me to be more vigilant about preventing false alarms. What is it about this program that causes the false alarm numbers to drop, aside from changing the definition of a false alarm?

    4. One past article on the program mentioned roughly 5,000 alarm systems in Suffolk. Assuming that to be true, in year one the people of Suffolk spent $125,000 on this program. Since then every year we spend $50,000 on the program, bringing the total through 2013 to $325,000 spent on a program that we can’t know how it is working since the definition of a false alarm was changed.

    5. Couldn’t we put that $50,000 a year into a job for someone here in Suffolk to keep the registration list updated?

    For a program that doesn’t have any apparent mechanism for reducing false alarms, that has redefined along the way what a false alarm is, and that sends a great deal of money annually out of the City, I fear we could be doing much better.

    Suggest Removal

    • Lovebug

      Why don’t you personally go see Major Burch so she can explain the answers to your questions? I’m 100% sure she can clear it all up for you. All you have to do is call the PD and make an appt to come in and speak to her. Shes a very nice lady with the brains and education to back up her statements and properly answer your questions.

      Suggest Removal

  • bp

    I also feel this is a tax on property owners wanting to protect their property. If someone has a false alarm then charge them. I would like to know the following: 1) What is the dollar amount the city receives from the fees paid by property owners with alarms, 2)) How are the fees spent and 3) What precentage of property owners without alarms do not pay the fee?

    Suggest Removal

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