Blaring false burglar alarms have become such a nuisance in Hillsborough County that the Sheriff's Office says they're distracting deputies from real crime fighting and costing taxpayers more than $2-million in wasted time.
So, beginning in October, county commissioners have agreed to slap stiffer fines on businesses and homes with trigger-happy alarm systems,
Owners of alarms in the unincorporated county are now allowed three free false alarms over a year. Each false alarm after the third warning costs the owner $25.
Under the ordinance passed unanimously Wednesday, alarm owners will get only two free passes. Then they will be fined $50, $75, $150, and $300 for the next four false alarms. Seven or more bogus alarms, and the owners must pay $500.
The problem is not unique to Hillsborough. Municipalities throughout the Tampa Bay area have struggled with the cost, time and aggravation, of responding to false alarms.
Most recently, Clearwater raised its fine schedule in October so that property owners who have more than four false alarms in a single calendar year face up to $500 in fines and possible court dates. Pinellas County has a similar ordinance.
Under the new Hillsborough ordinance, owners who don't pay will get a lien placed on their business or home.
"There's going to be a sticker shock, but we're not doing this to sneak up on anybody with fines," said sheriff's Cpl. Richard Eldridge. "But we felt we had to do something. The number of false alarms we get now is phenomenal, and we figured the ultimate responsibility lies with the users."
Jim McCausey, general manager of MotorSports, a recreational vehicle lot on North Florida Avenue, said his store can't afford the new fines.
Last year, when it was owned by another person, the store had 92 false alarms, according to the Sheriff's Office.
With the higher fines, that would cost $43,000.
McCausey said the previous owner was sloppy, and didn't answer many of the phone calls steered his way by alarm company dispatchers, prompting deputies to go to the address. But many of the alarms did detect potential break-ins, McCausey said.
"The alarm goes off and scares away whomever is trying to break in," McCausey said. "The deputies get there and don't see anyone and label it a false alarm. But it's not a false alarm because someone really did trigger it."
McCausey said he's taking steps to reduce false alarms. He's trimmed trees hanging over the lot, which he hopes will reduce the number of times animals set off the motion detector. He's also setting up Internet cameras so he can monitor the property from home.
"I'm doing everything I can," McCausey said. "But if they don't have a system to dispute what they're calling false alarms, then it's not fair."
Eldridge said there were 62,072 alarm calls in 2003. Of those, 60,427 were false, or 97 percent. In 2002, of more than 63,000 alarm calls, 97 percent were false.
Answering false calls cost the Sheriff's Office more than $2-million last year, enough to pay the salaries of 11 deputies, six dispatchers and two clerks, Eldridge said.
Electronic cries of wolf have also besieged Tampa police.
In 2003, 93 percent of almost 40,000 alarms were false, said Kirby Rainsberger, the legal adviser for the Tampa Police Department.
Instead of increasing the fines from the initial $40, however, Rainsberger said the department tries to work with repeat offenders.
"Our philosophy is to work with people rather than beat them senseless with fines," Rainsberger said. "I'm not aware of anyone who thumbs their nose at us once we tell them that we have a problem."
Nationwide, law enforcement agencies are struggling with how to cope with false calls.
Beginning this year, Los Angeles police refused to answer calls at addresses with more than two false alarms in a given year. Chicago, Baltimore and Seattle all increased fines for faux alarms.
"I wouldn't say there's an epidemic, but it's a problem that our industry recognizes," said Rick Ostopowicz, spokesman for the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association in Silver Spring, Md.
Ostopowicz credits the rise in false alarms to the popularity of burgla alarms. In 1998, about 13 percent of U.S. homes had such alarms. In 2004 and in a post 9/11 world, Ostopowicz expects that percentage to rise to 25 percent of all homes.