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Alarm ordinance to get 2nd hearing

January 13, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

HAGERSTOWN -- The Washington County Commissioners decided Tuesday to hold another public hearing before voting on a controversial ordinance to regulate security alarm systems.

The ordinance, proposed by the Washington County Sheriff's Department to cut down on false alarms, would impose fines when deputies are summoned by alarms for nonemergencies three or more times in one year. It would also require alarm system users to obtain permits, and pay a one-time fee of $30 for residential alarms and $60 for nonresidential alarms.

About 99 percent of the department's alarm system-generated calls turn out to be false alarms, Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said. The department responded to about 3,200 false alarms in 2007 at a cost of about $96,000 in wages alone, he said.

At a public hearing on an earlier draft of the ordinance in September 2007, several residents spoke out against it, including some who objected to the permit fee. At a subsequent meeting that month, the commissioners decided to put the ordinance on hold until it could be aligned with a similar, existing ordinance in the City of Hagerstown.

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Mullendore brought an updated draft to the commissioners' meeting Tuesday and said the Hagerstown City Council was expected to repeal the city's current ordinance and adopt the county's version after the county adopted it.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said because 16 months had passed since the public hearing, the county should hold another before voting on the ordinance, and Commissioners Kristin B. Aleshire and John F. Barr agreed.

A date has not been set for the hearing.

The other commissioners, Terry Baker and William J. Wivell, said they opposed the ordinance.

Wivell said he supported fines for repeat false-alarm offenders, but not the permits, the registration fees or the creation of an alarm administrator position.

"I mean, that is typical government where you institute fees and create additional positions, and that's not where I'd like to see us go," Wivell said.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said in the city's experience, an alarm administrator position was necessary to handle billing and correspondence with alarm users, whether or not permits are required.

Mullendore said the permits would give the department quick access to information, such as the location of an alarm and how to contact the key holder, information that is sometimes not available from alarm companies.

Baker said that instead of instituting fines or fees, the county should simply stop responding to a site after two false alarms in one year. He also said that because alarm systems deter crime, the county should offer rebates or incentives to alarm system users.

"We have all these people that are losing their jobs," Baker said. "Probably a lot of the people that we'd be assessing these fees to have already lost their jobs, they're in dire need of employment, and now ... we're being asked to go and vote on this ordinance and just pick their pockets."

Mullendore said refusing to respond after two false alarms could pose liability issues.

Also up for discussion at the public hearing will be the amounts of any associated fees and fines. The proposed fines for residential alarm users would begin at $30 for the third false alarm within one calendar year and increase by $20 for each subsequent offense that year. For nonresidential alarm users, the fines would begin at $60 for the third false alarm within one calendar year and increase by $25 for each subsequent offense that year.

Kercheval suggested Mullendore propose an alternative fee schedule with lower initial permit fees and higher false-alarm fines.

In the proposed ordinance, signals would not be treated as false alarms if they are activated by severe weather conditions or other "acts of God," if they are activated during the first 60 days after installation, if all appropriate emergency agencies are notified of a test ahead of time or if the alarm company calls to cancel the alarm before police arrive.

Residential alarm users older than 65 would be exempt from the permit fee and government entities would be exempt from any fees.

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