The uproar this past week over a city coding error that sent Janis Music a $700 bill for false alarms that turned out to actually have been alarms set off by criminal activity nicely masks a much bigger outrage: Why are Manteca taxpayers indirectly subsidizing alarm companies?
If just a sixth of the 24,000 residential units in Manteca have burglar alarms, based on average monthly charges alarm companies are raking in $1.4 million annually from residential customers.
Those companies are selling a service that calls the police when the alarm goes off. They make a huge profit for selling a middle man service that in the end is nothing more than dialing police dispatch.
Statistics compiled for the year 2008 that was the impetus for the city’s burglary alarm policy indicated Manteca Police responded to 3,527 residential burglary alarms (that excludes business alarms) of which 98.7 percent were triggered by mechanical failure or owner error. That left 81 alarms that were classified as possible criminal activity.
Due to the nature of the calls it requires two officers. Manteca Police devoted 2,116 hours in 2008 responding to false alarms that took resources away from other calls as well as reduced proactive patrolling. That translates into $84,640 worth of police services based on the low-ball per hour cost for salaries and benefits.
Instead of following the lead of some cities that addressed the problem by not having police respond to burglar alarms that are a contract between the alarm firm and the customers and not with any jurisdiction, the Manteca City Council took a different path. They opted to revamp the false alarms ordinace.
The rules put in place in 2009 limited false alarms to two a year and not two a month. There is no charge for the first two responses. The third false response is $100, the fourth response is $200, and the fifth is $400 within a designated period. There is also a $200 fine if police respond to an alarm and the homeowner or business has not obtained a city issued permit of updated information on parties responding officers can contact on an annual basis.
The fines false alarms and for failing to have permits on file — or permits that are updated — have exceeded $100,000 on an annual basis in recent years.
Given that the alarm companies are profiting by being a middle man, the City Council should consider shifting responsibility for filing the initial permits and making the required annual update of information in January of each year.
The justification for such a move is based on the sales pitch firms make to customers that their monthly payment for an alarm will buy them peace of mind. But in order to buy that “peace of mind” the Manteca Police need to have certain current information on file to be effective.
The city has been scratching their proverbial head for years on how to get people to remember to file updated permit information every January. The answer is simple. Require the alarm companies that homeowners contract with to provide it. And if they don’t, if the police respond to an alarm at a residence that doesn’t have a permit or updated permit information on file, the alarm company gets slapped with a $200 fine.
Before alarm companies scream such a move is an outrage, the real outrage is they are making $1.4 million for doing basically nothing save monitoring alarms.
Unlike the city, the alarm companies have a perfect hammer. They can “bill” customers $200 every December for permit processing and suspend the charge until the February bill providing the customer sends updated contact information to the alarm company that they can then forward to the police.
You’d think they’d jump at the chance of doing that as it overcomes “forgetfulness” of customers and helps them deliver on their advertising promise to provide “peace of mind.”
The city could also consider making the alarm company pay a $100 fine assessed when the owner or their designee fails to respond when an alarm goes off.
The idea of the contact list is to make sure someone will respond when an officer is dispatched. It is why multiple contacts are requested.
The alarm company can pay the fine and bill the customer for it.
It would not change the basic dynamic of the homeowner footing the bill but it would assure that the alarm company works proactively with customers to make sure there is a reliable and deep enough list of contacts.
The alarm company is a service company. They are selling the service of making sure homes have all of the needed security measures in place and working — and that includes vital information the police need updated on an annual basis. They are not sending their own personnel to check out homes. But instead they are offering security concierge services.
Such a move would make the alarm services and police response both more effective.
Ultimately the cost for not adhering to city law regarding burglar alarms is still on the shoulders of homeowners and businesses.
It also eliminates the need for expensive options the city may be mulling such as mailing out reminders in addition to e-mail blasts that permits need to be renewed and updated.
To recap, fining the firms that sell the alarm services keeps costs down for the city (read that taxpayers), makes sure the alarm services the firms sell are as effective as possible, and maximizes the effectiveness of the Manteca Police.