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News: Alarming Reaction

Opposition to city's new security fee could prompt reversal

By Susan Lyons · July 30th, 2003 · News
Tara Blum

With the country at a heightened state of alert for terrorism, Cincinnati has enacted a new tax that has the effect of discouraging personal security.

But the burglar alarm tax has so many businesses and homeowners angry that some of the same city council members who voted to pass it now want to repeal it.

Council unanimously approved the security alarm registration fee May 21 as an amendment to the False Alarm Ordinance. Homeowners with security alarms must pay a $50 registration fee every two years. Businesses pay $100.

Council also has raised the fees for false alarms. For repeated false alarms, the city used to charge $25 to $300. Now the fees range from $50 to $800. The official reason for the new fees is the large amount of false alarms in the city; the police department says it handles more than 24,000 a year.

Each officer response takes 20-30 minutes, costing the city more than $500,000 a year, according to the department's False Alarm Reduction Unit (FARU). Ellie Topham, supervisor of FARU, says registration fees are effective in other cities, and their fees are often higher than Cincinnati's.

"There are a myriad of cities nationwide that require registration fees at much higher costs," she says.

"These cities are showing a success of bringing down the number of false alarms."

A slick brochure from the police department suggests the reason for the registration fee is to reduce false alarms. But the price of registration was partially derived from the cost of new software for FARU, according to Topham -- something the brochure never mentions. The registration fee is an administrative fee designed to help set up Cry Wolf, a new alarm tracking database. The software costs approximately $75,000, and FARU employs four people full time.

John Lindberg, president of Dial One Security, says a fee for dispatching is reasonable but the registration fee isn't. The new fee will hurt business in Cincinnati, he says.

"I believe it (the registration fee) was put together in haste," Lindberg says.

The registration fee isn't even transferable, he says. If you move into a house with an alarm, you must pay $50 even if the previous owner already registered the alarm.

Leslie Scott, owner of Ali's Boutique in Northside, wrote to city council to say the fee is unfair.

"If I do something wrong, fine," she wrote. "You can charge me for it. But why do I have to pay you just to have the privilege of having an alarm system that allows you to do your job?"

When Scott has a false alarm, she has her alarm company call the police and tell them, she says. Scott says that every time she's had a false alarm she's had time to get to her store and reset the alarm before the police arrived -- after the alarm company had already called them.

"Why don't you (the police) not come when the alarm is cancelled?" Scott wrote. "Doesn't that save you from a false alarm? Or is it more entertaining to show up?"

The owner of a two-family house who was the victim of a home invasion in April was outraged to find that she now has to pay $100 to register the security systems protecting her and her tenants. She asked not to be identified but wrote city council about the new fee.

"This just might be the final straw," she wrote. "You have angered one more person who will be moving out of Cincinnati, since innocent people are being punished for trying to protect themselves from the drug dealers who are allowed to run this city."

Some council members are receptive to the outcry over the new fees. Council members Pat DeWine and Chris Monzel are calling for a repeal of the ordinance. Vice Mayor Alicia Reece is holding a public hearing on the ordinance Wednesday.

"In the current environment, people protecting themselves should not be penalized," Monzel says.

Monzel opposed the ordinance in committee. But when it came before the full council, he heard no negative comments so he voted for it, he says. The police department supported the fees, he says.

But in an e-mail to a person opposed to the fees, Monzel denied voting for the ordinance.

"I actually voted against the ordinance," he wrote.

Records show that the only person who didn't vote for the fees was Councilwoman Minette Cooper, who was absent.

Now Monzel says the fee doesn't encourage security.

"We need to help people feel secure -- and making them pay a fee doesn't," he says. ©



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