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False alarms keep code enforcers, appeals court busy in Hillsborough

TAMPA — It's so bad, the lawyer is apologizing.

Eight false alarms have gone off at what used to be a Latin restaurant in Brandon. The tenant before that one installed the alarm, she says.

Now the landlord owes $2,625 to Hillsborough County taxpayers.

"The alarm is under control at this point," attorney Deborah Tracy assures Special Magistrate Christopher Brown. "We have control of the alarm system."

At that, he knocks the fine down to a neat $1,000.

It's like this one morning a month, people parading in and out of a county boardroom to explain why Hillsborough sheriff's deputies were summoned to their homes and businesses for no good reason.

Burglar alarms are supposed to keep us safe or at least feeling safe. But when the cat, the house guest or faulty wiring sets them off, suddenly we are the bad guy.

Studies show that as much as 25 percent of police calls are generated by false alarms, which can account for more than 90 percent of burglary calls.

Five years ago, bogus alarms were costing Hillsborough County taxpayers more than $2 million a year.

The County Commission responded with an ordinance, complete with a progression of fines, now enforced by the Code Enforcement Department.

First come two warning letters, then penalties that climb from $75 to $500 per violation.

Since the law took effect, false calls have dropped by more than half, said code enforcement manager Jim Snavely. The fines generate more than $1 million a year.

But that doesn't happen without a lot of hard work by Snavely's staff of three. There are certified letters, photographs, notices on doorways.

And, when all else fails, the hearing.

Every possible excuse

"You hear every story, from 'It's not my fault, the cleaning lady set it off,' to 'My mother-in-law set it off,' " says Snavely, who works with homeowners when the circumstances are especially compelling.

When his own mother-in-law set the alarm off, he said, "I got a letter."

Power outages are a common issue. The county's position: You need to take that up with the alarm company.

"They don't care," business manager Mark Mendez said of code enforcement. His business, a Lumber Liquidators shop in Lutz, owed $1,000 going into the last hearing on April 6. Mendez, interviewed afterward, said he was trying to get his corporate office in Virginia to handle the matter.

That's not an uncommon scenario among businesses, said Brad Shipp, executive director of the False Alarm Reduction Association, based in Rockville, Md.

Homeowners, meanwhile, sign up for services and then get too busy to have them maintained and inspected. Or they are overwhelmed by the magnitude of information presented during the sales pitch.

"People tend to buy alarms and forget about the system itself unless they get a false alarm," Shipp said. After all, it's not like a car that you drive every day, he said. You need to have it inspected regularly, and test the batteries. "They'll sign a contract, get the system in, and all that's forgotten."

The city of Tampa handles things differently, with the Tampa Police Department enforcing an ordinance that has existed since 1989. In 2004 the city hired a collection agency to handle past-due accounts, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

Customers on the April 6 agenda came in all shapes and sizes: churches and liquor stores, fixed-income seniors and the owners of a $1 million spread in Odessa, who settled up days before the hearing.

About a fourth of the homeowners and businesses made similar last-minute payments.

Ignore the hearing notice and Brown will give you another 10 days' grace. Then $25 a day — sometimes more — is tacked on to your fine.

Appear, as a handful did, and you could be rewarded with a nice discount — the going rate this month was 50 percent off.

It's a good deal if you don't mind the embarrassment.

'I'm not a mechanic'

Evelyn Taylor was facing a $175 fine for the day's case and another $150 for a newer, pending case, both involving a three-bedroom home south of Temple Terrace.

Her defense: The alarm company drilled into an air-conditioning line, causing a Freon leak that required all kinds of repairs.

"I don't know what takes place because I'm not a mechanic," she said. "I don't know what else to do, except change alarm companies. And if I do, I will have to pay to get out of the contract."

She produced a stack of bills. Her fine was reduced to $75. "I can get my son to help me," she said.

Another woman who owed $75 sent a letter explaining that she missed the hearing because of her elderly mother's medical appointment.

The woman had long since moved out of the house, she wrote, because of an abusive husband. Brown excused her, but not the ex-husband.

"She needs to get her name off that house," Snavely said later.

Brown was equally generous in the case of a Shells Seafood in Brandon that left a malfunctioning alarm system when the chain filed for bankruptcy protection, and in the case of Real Life Church of Town 'N Country, which had trouble with its wiring.

"It's really a mess," said church representative Corinne Stransky, thrilled to see $800 shrink to $300. "Thank you guys so much!"

Strangely, Shipp said, a proliferation in false alarm laws nationwide does not seem to be slowing sales in the industry.

He suspects that customers who have been hit with high fines, or who cannot get satisfactory service, are just deactivating their alarms.

In Hillsborough, if fines are ignored long enough, the county can place a lien on the house.

Usually, Snavely said, people pay up when they receive that $25-a-day notice.

"We're very, very busy all the time," he said. "But we're getting results."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or

How it works

With as much as 25 percent of law enforcement calls being attributed to false alarms, Hillsborough County passed a law five years ago that gave code enforcement the power to fine for false alarms. So, after law enforcement answers false alarms, code enforcement issues two warning letters. If false alarms persist, it begins levying fines that start at $75, but can go as high as $500, per violation. Here are examples of violations that have been moving through the system recently:

8 false alarms

$1,000 fine

This property in Brandon was home to a restaurant, now closed, that experienced eight false burglary alarms,

according to county records. Attorney Deborah Tracy said the prior tenant installed the alarm. By appearing at a

hearing and explaining the

circumstances, she got a $2,625 fine reduced to $1,000.

3 false alarms

$300 fine

Shells Seafood went into bankruptcy, leaving behind a faulty alarm system that ran up $550 in false alarm fines. A hearing officer knocked the fine down to $300.

At least

2 false alarms

$1,000 fine

Lumber Liquidators in Lutz has had trouble with its alarm system. The county fined it $1,000. Manager Mark Mendez blames power outages.

At least

2 false alarms

$75 fine

The owner of the house above has had trouble with both her alarm system and her air conditioner. A hearing officer allowed her to pay $75 for false alarms instead of the original fine of $175.

False alarms keep code enforcers, appeals court busy in Hillsborough 04/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 16, 2009 4:30am]
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