Champaign officials trying to avoid costly false alarms
CHAMPAIGN — Police officials and city council members are trying to deal with a costly and time-consuming problem for law enforcement.
Police say they spent $111,717 responding to alarms at residential and commercial properties in 2012, the most recent data available. The problem is that only a tiny fraction of that cost — and the police officers' time — was for actual criminal activity.
The vast majority were false alarms, numbering in the thousands.
In 2012, police responded 2,555 times to alarms that had been triggered. Only 19 times did police find evidence of criminal activity.
"The remaining alarms were the result of user error, weather-related or accidental in nature," said Champaign police deputy Chief Joe Gallo.
If the city council's 9-0 straw-poll vote from Tuesday night stands up, it will soon get more costly for property owners whose alarms are accidentally triggered time after time, and people who already have an alarm installed will have to starting paying a $20 annual fee.
Since 1989, the city has had an ordinance on alarms and penalties for false alarms, but the fees haven't changed in 25 years. When the police department recently started cleaning up its alarm database, it discovered a major financial gap — nearly $100,000.
"The price for the database was much more than we were bringing in with the revenue," Gallo said.
While the city spent $111,717 responding to alarms and enforcing the ordinance, it collected only $12,520 in alarm registration fees and penalties for repeat offenders.
It's a costly side effect of having the police called every time, say, somebody forgets to deactivate an alarm when they get home at night.
"This service does come with a price," Gallo said. "It has an impact on city services."
The $20 annual permit renewal fee for people with alarms at their business or home would be expected to bring in the most new revenue: $87,260 annually, based on city officials' estimates.
And under changes before the city council Tuesday night, police want to charge more when people install alarms at businesses or homes and get more aggressive with fines when officers keep getting called on accident.
The initial registration fee for a new alarm would go from $10 to $50 — bringing in an estimated $22,600 annually. Users would not be charged for the first three false alarms each year, but false calls four through nine in a one-year period would cost them $100 each. More than nine false alarms, and the repeat offender would have to pay $150 each subsequent time.
The new fine schedule is expected to bring in $32,550. Altogether, the registration fees and fines for false alarms are expected to bring in $142,410 annually.
City officials are expecting higher costs with the new alarm rules, too. New software to manage the alarm database could cost $36,700 initially and as much as $5,500 annually thereafter.
The fees "may be extremely expensive to some businesses, and I recognize that," said council member Deborah Frank Feinen. "But it's also incredibly expensive for the taxpayers and (Champaign Police Department), so it seems like we're striking a nice balance."
By comparison, the fire department starts charging alarm users $500 for each false call after the fifth accident.
The city also wants to send information to existing alarm users about the common causes of false alarms.
The fines are double and the thresholds are a bit lower than where they were set in the 1989 ordinance. The ordinance changes, in many cases, would also require alarm companies, like F.E. Moran or ADT, to try and reach two people at the business or home before they call police.
Council member Tom Bruno said it's a fair price to pay for "jerking around our first responders like this."
"It's a cost we can't afford to pay," Bruno said.
In 2012, the Champaign Police Department responded to 2,555 triggered alarms. They found criminal activity 19 times. Here's what they spent:
-- $23,902 for 703 hours that dispatchers spent handling alarm calls.
-- $67,841 for 588 police hours. Protocol dictates that two officers respond to each alarm.
-- $18,911 for 490 administrative hours for billing, registrations and notices for alarm users.
-- $1,063 for mailing those items.
-- Total: $111,717 -- or about $43.72 per alarm.