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False security alarms may come with a price in St. Petersburg

Published Nov. 26, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Last year, police officers were dispatched to more than 9,700 calls triggered by false security alarms, an average of about 27 a day.

The cost to the city, officials said, was nearly $375,000.

City officials say it's time for things to change.

They've given first-round approvals to a plan, proposed this week by Billings and Collections director Tammy Jerome, to revamp the regulations for people whose false alarms cost the city time and money.

Under the plan, which will need final City Council approval next month, St. Petersburg would do away with its initial $25 permit and $20 annual renewal fees that residents and businesses now pay to have their alarm system information on file.

Instead, the city would recoup costs on the back end, by hiking fines for false alarms that require a police response. The more times an alarm went off falsely, the higher the fines would be.

"I think there comes a point where it becomes a nuisance," said council member Bill Dudley. "We do have better things to do."

The goal, Jerome told a council budget committee on Monday, is to shift the burden to those who are costing the most money while also bringing St. Petersburg's fee structure in line with other area governments.

Neither Pinellas County, Hillsborough County nor Tampa charge residents for registration or renewal permits. They do, however, have false alarm fees ranging from zero for the first couple of instances to $500 for multiple false alarms in a year.

The city budget committee advanced a proposal that would create a new sliding scale for false alarm fines, ranging from free for the first two times a false alarm was triggered to $50 for the third time, $100 for the fourth, $200 for the fifth, $300 for the sixth and seventh, $400 for the eighth and ninth, and $500 for 10 or more.

The count would start over each year.

People who don't register their systems at all and then get a false alarm call face higher fines at every level.

Council member Charlie Gerdes said he likes the changes, and has fielded complaints from residents who wonder why they have to pay for registration and renewals if they never cost the system any money.

There are a few more than 14,000 systems registered with the city, Jerome said. When an alarm call comes in and police are dispatched, the officers who arrive will determine whether it was a false alarm or if a burglary or other crime may have occurred.

Eliminating the front-end fees should encourage more people to sign up, she said, and the higher fines should be an incentive for people to limit false alarms.

False alarm costs have fallen significantly since the city first put its regulations into place in the mid 1990s, Jerome said.

In 1994, police got more than 18,000 calls. In 2013, the number was 9,767, though more than 1,800 of them were cleared prior to police arrival.

According to city data, most of the false alarm calls in 2013 — nearly 6,500 — were a first or second time occurrence, which does not trigger a fine. A few more than 1,000 calls were to people who'd had it happen at least three times, a $50 fine.

Fifteen calls were to places that had at least 16 false alarms.

"We have plenty of work for the police to do without responding to false alarms," said council member Karl Nurse.

Contact Kameel Stanley at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @cornandpotatoes.