SOUTH PORTLAND – At its Dec. 3 meeting, the South Portland City Council gave final approval to an ordinance update that allows the city to deny business license renewals to any company with outstanding bills for unwarranted burglar alarms calls.

Police Chief Ed Googins said the fees, which start at $35 for the second false alarm and cap at $100 for the fourth and each subsequent incident, are designed to encourage businesses to resolve frequent system malfunctions and inadvertent activations that needlessly tie up police time.

“It’s not our intent to harass anyone and, in fact, we don’t charge the first time we go out,” said Googins. “But there are certain places we find ourselves at repeatedly.”

The fees actually have been in place for years. The city ordinance on burglar alarms dates to 1984 and was last updated in 2006. However, much of it referred to systems and infrastructure not in place since at least early 2011, when South Portland and Portland merged dispatch operations. When it came time to strike out the dead passages of the ordinance, it was decided to add a license renewal restriction to the existing fee structure, in part because billing for services alone did not seem to be having the desired effect.

According to city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, South Portland is sitting on $42,069 in unpaid false alarm bills dating to January 2008. Those fees, said L’Heureux, were assessed to “more than 150 businesses.”

In a recent City Council workshop session on the new restrictions, City Attorney Sally Daggett said the city clerk’s office can withhold business license renewals even for bills incurred before the ordinance change goes into effect, Dec. 23.

That’s true even though the old ordinance tied those fees to mothballed equipment.

Language removed from the ordinance tied the false alarm fees to “a written agreement” for property “connected to the master panel at the police station.” Googins said that although that system was dismantled long ago, as private companies arose to monitor home and commercial alarm systems, the fees still apply.

“Even though we were not for years maintaining a master panel that people could tie into, we did do alarm agreements with people,” he said last week. “True, it wasn’t to the strict letter of the ordinance, alarms still came in here, they just came through a private vendor.”

Whenever police responded to a burglar alarm at a site where there was no agreement in place, the department would later send one for the property- or business-owner to sign, said Googins.

“Pretty much, it was an agreement informing people what their responsibilities were having an alarm system, for false alarms and whatnot,” he said. “We have a whole file drawer of agreements here.”

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