Submitted by Anthony Keller.
If you have a home alarm system, you’re probably aware that University Place revised it’s ordinance concerning home alarm systems about a year ago. The city’s mailer (Public Safety Special Report, Nov 2020) states the council “decided to increase the annual permit fee and false alarm fee so that they are in-line with neighboring jurisdictions”.
The following table shows the alarm fees and fines for all the jurisdictions in Pierce County that I was able to locate.
I believe this table shows alarm owners in University Place are being taxed more than anyone else in the county. Accordingly, University Place’s projected annual revenue from this tax on home alarms was expected to increase from $6,500 to $160,000 for 2021. If you add the revenue from false alarm penalties, the city expects an income from alarm owners of $200,000 per year!
I’ve heard two arguments from U.P. officials why permits are essential:
- The registry of alarm owners facilitates billing (both annual and false alarm fines).
- “The permit fee is similar to a membership fee, it signs you up for a police response.”
I asked the city of Lacey (I used to live there) how they charge for false alarms without requiring (and charging for) permits. They said: “On the dispatched call, it will indicate what the address is for the incident. If it is a residence, we will address the bill to the owner of the home and send it to that address. We have a tracking sheet that shows how many times we have gone out to the address in the year.”
The pros of Lacey’s system:
- It is not complicated.
- There are no fees for permits.
- The city doesn’t have to pay $16,000 per year for special permit software plus $25,000 per year for associated staff costs.
- Despite having no permitting system, Lacey is compensated for false alarms.
The cons of Lacey’s system:
- Lacey does not receive a $160,000 per year windfall from a small portion of their homeowners.
It may be noted that Gig Harbor’s system is similar to Lacey’s system.
Another disturbing aspect of the current ordinance is the provision for police to ignore alarms from homes that don’t pay for a permit. While I don’t agree that I should have to pay an extra tax for simply owning a security alarm, the prospect of giving up police response precisely when I need them is disturbing enough for me to pay up. It’s not what I would call a “totally voluntary” choice.
It is understandable that the City is concerned about spending too much time/money on police response to false alarms. I’ve been informed the average time it takes for police to handle a false alarm call is approximately 20 minutes. I have no objection to charging the alarm owner for false alarms – especially repeated false alarms. However there’s is a question whether compensation for that “wasted” 20 minutes should be based on the police department’s total budget or simply based on the average salary of the officer(s) responding to the false alarm. I think each homeowner already pays for police infrastructure, so the calculated cost of responding to a false alarm should be restricted to the average hourly rate of an officer.
Ultimately, I do not believe the city should make a profit from homeowners that simply own an alarm system nor make a profit from police response to home alarms.
The revised ordinance pertaining to residential alarms has been in place for almost a year, and can be viewed at: http://www.codepublishing.com/WA/UniversityPlace/#!/UniversityPlace09/UniversityPlace0910.html#9.10. Areas of note include:
- 9.10.030.A: You HAVE to get a permit before you use an alarm system.
- 9.10.030.E: You HAVE to get a permit within 20 days of installing a new alarm system.
9.10.030.F: You HAVE to pay all fees as required by this ordinance.
- 9.10.035.I: Delinquent charges and fees may be sent to a collection agency after 30 days.
- 9.10.130.A: If you violate any provision as described, you HAVE committed a civil infraction. The penalty for any violation is $250 per day plus fees, costs and assessments.
It should also be noted that the ordinance explicitly provides the city total freedom from having to do (or not do) anything in relation to this ordinance. Accordingly, U.P officials have informed me that the city (as a matter of informal policy I believe) is regarding acquiring alarm system permits as voluntary with the caveat that police may not respond to an unpermitted activated alarm. So the silver lining is they probably won’t fine you $91,000 if you don’t pay your fee for a year.
I’ve been informed that the city council will review the ordinance on December 6th.