Berlin looks to bill for false alarms
By David Delcore
Staff Writer | May 22,2013
BERLIN — The Select Board is considering letting the town’s police and volunteer fire departments charge an escalating fee for responding to calls that turn out to be nothing.
In a move designed to recover the expenses of dealing with what they described as an inordinate number of false alarms, Fire Chief Miles Silk Jr. and Police Chief Bill Wolfe both urged the board to enact an ordinance similar to those in some surrounding communities.
If approved as presented to the board at its Monday night meeting, the ordinance would create a mechanism for both departments to recoup costs associated with alarms that go off when they shouldn’t.
Silk told the board that volunteer firefighters respond to hundreds of false alarms a year. The proposed ordinance, he said, could begin to take some of the financial sting out of an all-too-familiar sequence of events that begins when an alarm sounds.
“We have a lot of commercial fire alarms … and we’re burning a lot of fuel every time we run out to these,” Silk said.
Wolfe echoed that, suggesting the proposed ordinance would help offset the expense of responding to security alarms at commercial establishments.
“As much as we welcome the commercial segment in Berlin, they do drain (our) resources,” he said.
Under the proposed ordinance, businesses would be entitled to two false alarms per calendar year — one between January and July and the other from July to December. A second alarm during either of those six-month spans would trigger a $100 fee, and any subsequent alarm in that same time frame would cost $200 each.
By way of example Silk said there were more than 30 alarm activations at the Price Chopper Plaza on the Barre-Montpelier Road during renovations last year in the space now occupied by Staples. Those alarms alone could have generated in excess of $5,500 in revenue under the proposed ordinance.
According to Silk, that money would be both billed and collected by the chiefs of both departments.
At least with respect to the Volunteer Fire Department that arrangement would funnel the new revenue away from the general fund and directly to the autonomous department that incurred the expense.
The town would have no role in collecting or accounting for that money, and the Select Board’s only responsibility under the proposed ordinance would be to entertain appeals and consider requests for waivers.
Though the Volunteer Fire Department is partly subsidized with local tax dollars, it is an independent organization, unlike the Police Department. For the past two years the volunteer firefighters have tried but failed to persuade voters to appropriate an additional $180,000 to the department to allow round-the-clock staffing at the Four Corners Station.
Silk said some central Vermont communities — Barre, Waterbury and Stowe among them — have alarm ordinances and that given the concentration of large commercial buildings in Berlin adopting one makes sense.
Town Administrator Jeff Schulz said that will first require scheduling a public hearing on the proposed ordinance — something the board agreed to consider at its next meeting.
The proposed ordinance includes a couple of other requirements and allows for a fine of up to $500 for violating any of them. Failure to pay the proposed “service fee” within 30 days would be a violation.
Silk said one advantage of the proposed ordinance is that it could prompt property owners to take better care of their alarm systems to avoid fees. Town-owned properties and the Volunteer Fire Department would be exempt from the ordinance, he said.