In 2004 Escondido passed an ordinance to charge an annual fee to register burglar alarms. When the program rolled out, affecting both homes and businesses, alarm owners were confused and frustrated by questions about their premises and the need to list three contacts who could show up if the system went off. So, the police department simplified the registration form.
Five years ago, Wayne Louth hired Guardian Security to install a medical alarm for his elderly mother. While the city exempts personal medical alarms like the pendant she wears, the system also has buttons for burglary and fire, and he says he had no idea it had to be registered.
"I have never received an invoice or bill for an alarm permit," Louth says. Until now. He recently got a bill for $25 from the City of Escondido for having a monitored alarm system. Only it wasn't from the city. The bill had a letterhead from the City of Escondido, Alarm Department, and a local telephone number. But when he called the number, he found himself talking to someone in San Francisco.
"The woman stated that this is a relatively new program to help pay for emergency false alarms, and she was speaking from the San Francisco area, and furthermore, she had no idea where Escondido was."
On February 14, Louth spoke out at the city-council meeting, demanding answers — and not only about the fees. "Why is a city department being outsourced?" he asked.
The amount owed, $25, is the annual rate set by the city in 2004. But there are also increased fees for false alarms this year. As the city website notes, false alarms "are very costly and prevent police officers from responding to actual emergencies."
On January 1, the city began charging a $25 fine for the second false alarm in a year if the system is permitted and $50 if it lacks a permit. The first false alarm gets a pass.
Compared to the City of San Diego, which also raised alarm fees this January — and charges $100 for the first false alarm and $200 for the second — it's a bargain. But Louth says there have been no false alarms, and he and his mother are both eligible for the senior rate of $15, which was listed, like the amounts for late penalties, in small print below.
"I'm just wondering how many automatically paid $25 when $15 would have worked, or were exempt in the first place."
The invoice doesn't mention that the city exempts personal medical alarms, like his 92-year-old mother's pendant, he says.
"If I had not called I would not have known it was exempt."
The pendant his mother wears calls for fire/rescue EMTs through Guardian Monitor, and none of the functions directly contact fire, police, or medical.
"They first go to the monitor personnel from Guardian, who then contacts the appropriate agency, after an emergency is determined," he says. "My feeling is that most of those that have this type of alarm system are the elderly, and when they get a notice to pay from the city they pay without question."
In fact, the representative he spoke to "told me I did not have to pay anything." That made him all the more curious, he says. "How can somebody just waive a notice to pay from the city that is not in the city? This is not mentioned on the invoice."
Louth is also concerned about the outsourcing of a city department.
"I guess city leaders are worried about paying a small pension to city residents. Similar to the reasoning for outsourcing our library." Louth says he is awaiting answers from city officials to questions about revenue gain or loss for the city, and more.
A 2011 city performance audit of the San Diego Police Department’s permits and licensing unit found that from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2010, alarm permits (residential and commercial) generated the most total revenue — $6 million — and represented 83 percent of all permits. But alarm permits also incurred $4.2 million in program costs in fiscal year 2010.
After the meeting, he says, Escondido police chief Craig Carter sat down with him to try and address his concerns. At least one of them will be resolved. The invoices will be reprinted to eliminate the confusion.