WHEELING, W.Va. — Accidentally tripping a burglar alarm may soon become very expensive in the city of Wheeling.
City Council’s Rules Committee – Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey and councilmen Robert “Herk” Henry and David Miller – will meet to discuss a possible false alarm fee ordinance at 10 a.m. Friday. The proposal stems from a Wheeling Police Department internal study on improving efficiency in the face of budget restrictions and staffing shortages.
According to the study, prepared by Lt. Phil Redford with the help of Wheeling Jesuit University students, city police responded to 4,471 burglar alarm calls between Jan. 1, 2010 and March 28, 2013. Only 23 of those calls – about 0.5 percent – resulted from an actual emergency.
“We spend an inordinate amount of time on these types of calls,” said Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger. “It’s a huge problem.”
The proposed ordinance would let the first false alarm slide, but set up an escalating fee structure for subsequent instances. A second false alarm in a year would cost $50; the third and fourth, $100 each; fifth and sixth, $200; seventh and eighth, $300; and $400 for the ninth false alarm and each one thereafter. No fee would be assessed if a user calls to cancel the response before officers arrive.
All alarm users would be required to pay an initial $25 registration fee followed by $10 annual renewal fees.
During 2012, the last complete year of the police department study, 78 addresses had five or more alarm calls – and 12 of those addresses, 10 or more. Officers responded to 29 calls at a single address that year. Had the proposed ordinance been in effect at that time, that alarm user would have been assessed a total of $9,650 in fees. Over time, the police department believes, recurring false alarms have an adverse effect on officer and resident safety.
“Police officers repeatedly responding to false alarms at the same location are less likely to anticipate actual criminal activity and, therefore, may be less prepared to respond to such activity,” the report states.
Last year, City Manager Robert Herron mentioned a possible false alarm fee when he proposed a number of budget cuts aimed at eliminating a projected shortfall. Since then, the city has made a number of changes to put the budget on stronger footing moving forward, including an overhaul of police and fire pension plans and increasing the municipal sales tax, and Herron said raising revenue would not be the primary goal of such an ordinance.
“It is to better utilize our resources,” he said.
Schwertfeger agrees with Herron that it’s not about the money.
“It’s basically holding people accountable to make sure these (alarm systems) are functioning the way they should,” he said.
Herron was unable to provide an annual revenue projection for the proposed fee.
Wheeling previously had a false alarm ordinance, but it was repealed in 1991 over concerns it was too unwieldy to administer. The police department report notes, however, that many cities recently have opted to outsource administration of the false alarm program to third-party companies, many of which will contract with cities for a percentage of fees collected, with no up-front cost.