The Wilson Times

Friday, January 24, 2014 9:34 PM

Editorial: False alarm fees need closer look

A Times editorial

Wilson’s burglar alarm problem could well be the modern adaptation of an Aesop fable — the one about the shepherd boy who cries wolf.

More than 99 percent of the 25,670 home security and fire alarm calls made to Wilson police in a recent five-year period were false alarms. City leaders want to reduce that number, and they’re considering fees for residents who repeatedly have police called to their homes for no good reason.

The Wilson City Council last week delayed a vote on false alarm fees after first-term Councilman Tom Fyle questioned the necessity of charging city residents an initial fee to register their alarm systems with the city.

Police first raised the issue in a June presentation to the City Council. Leaders held off on a planned vote for the fees in September after Wilson County Schools sought time to correct problems with security alarms at several schools in the Wilson city limits. Last week’s delay is the second time the measure has failed to reach a vote.

Under the proposed ordinance, Wilson residents would be fined when police respond to more than two false alarms. The third, fourth and fifth alarm would set residents back $50, the sixth and seventh would cost $100 and after eight false alarms, the city would send you a $250 bill each time the police are unnecessarily called.

Fees are steeper for false fire alarms — $500 for the third, fourth or fifth and $755 for six or more.

Proponents say the benefit is twofold — alarm fees reimburse police and firefighters for the time and resources spent responding to false alarms and they give residents a dollars-and-cents deterrent.

Reducing the number of false alarms in Wilson is essential. First responders tied up on bogus calls may be delayed from responding to bona fide emergencies. And, like the weary villagers in Aesop’s fable, they may not arrive as quickly to a legitimate burglary when the offense address has a long history of false alarms.

We agree that a false alarm rate of 99 percent is beyond unacceptable, but we aren’t sure that the proposed ordinance as currently written is the fairest and best way to correct the problem.

First, the suggested fines are excessive and appear to be more punitive in nature than compensatory. Police estimate that it costs them $22.65 to respond to the average false alarm, according to figures Wilson police commanders provided to The Wilson Times in June. The first-level fine is more than double that amount.

Is the city’s objective to simply recoup the cost of responding to false alarms or to make money off residents and businesses who are lax on security? In these lean economic times, a $25 or $30 fee provides plenty of deterrent value. Doubling the price just seems like piling on.

Finally, we’d like to echo Fyle’s skepticism over the alarm system registration fees. Residents and businesses who purchase alarms and pay for monthly monitoring are making an investment in security that discourages crime and benefits the city as a whole. Preemptively penalizing those who take personal responsibility for their safety feels wrong.

Make no mistake, there should be a consequence for crying wolf. But city leaders should deliberate carefully to ensure that false alarm fees are reasonable and tied to true, traceable costs.

©The Wilson Times, Wilson, North Carolina.
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