Crow Wing County looks to revamp alarm ordinance
A security alarm went off at 10 p.m. on an outbuilding in rural Crow Wing County.
The resident, a man in his 80s, was worried he’d be charged if it was a false alarm or if he should go out in the night himself to check on it.
Those scenarios are ones the sheriff’s office reports it wants to resolve as the current ordinance regulating alarms is revamped. The alarm ordinance and registration fee is expected as a topic before the board when it meets Tuesday.
Tina Elder, sheriff’s department office manager, said the current alarm ordinance is desperately out of date.
In 2001, the county started collecting and managing data for residents and businesses with alarms. Elder said it’s important to keep the data up to date and the registration of alarm systems is the process to make sure information is current. The information gives responding law enforcement officers the names of key holders and current contact information. It lets them know who is authorized to be at a site.
“We believe we are serving the public interest by having the information available,” Elder said at a recent committee meeting.
In March of 2007, changes were made to the county’s ordinance to address false alarms. There seemed to be a push to establish a fee as a way of reducing the number of false alarms along with consideration to gain revenue where possible. A fee of $50 was established. After three false alarms it went up to $100.
“The reality is collecting for false alarms is very cumbersome,” Elder said. It also puts responding deputies in a position of trying to track the number of alarms at a given residence. Elder said the fee for false alarms was never charged by the sheriff’s office. And now the sheriff is asking to eliminate the false alarm fee.
Two years ago, it was thought technology may provide the software to track alarms using an automated system. The task proved more complex and the vendor working on the project didn’t meet the deadline.
Elder said alarms have been tripped at house parties as an entertainment ice-breaker as people guess at the law enforcement response time. Other alarms are justified, even set off by broken pipes and flooding basements instead of intruders. In 2013, there were 2,400 calls to dispatchers related to alarms. Of those, 800 were handled by the sheriff’s office.
Last year, Elder said the sheriff’s office found people felt the letter the county issued about registrations was confrontational in its tone. Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering said the letter was intimidating, giving the impression if the money wasn’t paid there would be a knock at the door. At issue was ordinance language.
The letter included a copy of the ordinance with its emphasis on false alarms. Ordinance language states if an individual fails to pay the fee established by the board within 30 days of billing, the sheriff’s office had the discretion to disconnect the alarm or not respond to it. Elder said the sheriff’s office focus is on public safety and not responding isn’t an option.
The standard letter was rewritten in a friendlier tone, Elder said. A common question and answer sheet was included. There were 2,900 alarm registrations last year but fewer than six complaints, the sheriff’s office reported. Elder said they felt they were making progress. But the ordinance language remained unchanged and problematic.
Elder said the sheriff’s office wants to take the focus off false alarms and move it to public safety. The county doesn’t charge for fire alarms or medical alerts. Elder said the goal was to remove the threat of a non-response.
Koering said if there is a problem with the alarm at his businesses, the alarm company calls him first. Koering said he understood the sheriff’s office needed the right information on who is an authorized key holder. But he questioned the cost.
Alarm system owners have asked why they need to provide the same information to their alarm company and again to the sheriff’s office. There are eight to 10 alarm companies in the area. Elder said sometimes the alarm company doesn’t have updated information. In other cases, she said people are monitoring their own alarm systems without a company to manage it.
Koering asked if someone is being proactive in getting an alarm why should they be penalized by being charged for it? He said the argument from residents may be they are already paying taxes. Koering asked if the money collected was really needed to maintain the database or if it could be done for less.
The first year the alarm system is registered the cost is $50 and then $20 annually after that. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom questioned how the county could justify charging more for the first year. Elder said the sheriff’s office has looked at that also in consideration of recommending lowering the initial fee.
As for the fee itself, Elder likened it to a gun permit fee, which is designed to cover the administration cost. The people with the alarms who are necessitating the additional work are covering the cost, without it that cost would be moved to all the taxpayers — those with alarms and without.
Koering suggested moving the fee to $20 a year. He said he never wanted a man in his 80s to worry about calling for help. Nystrom suggested skipping the $50 first registration fee and going with $25 annually. Koering said he wouldn’t support that change.
Administrator Tim Houle said staff would get the framework in place for the ordinance language and the board could decide on the fee.