Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is calling for increased scrutiny of the city's False Alarm Reduction Program, which he says is partly responsible for the city government's seizure of thousands of homes.
"People [can rack up] thousands of dollars in false alarms," said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman. "The city can seize your home over unpaid bills. You want the city to have some teeth, but you also want to be smart. If someone is not paying, does it make sense to take someone's home and now the city is responsible for another vacant property?"
Last year, the city auctioned 12,689 homes and properties whose owners failed to pay local taxes and municipal bills, including false-alarm fees — twice as many as in 2006, in the midst of Baltimore's housing boom, Young's office says. This year, 10,839 properties were offered at tax sale.
Davis said Young's office is investigating how many of those were specifically due to false-alarm bills.
"We want to get the hard statistical data," he said.
In a resolution calling for a City Council hearing about the issue, Young attributed the increase in properties being offered at tax sales to the economic downturn. He wants the council to hear testimony from police, fire and housing department leaders.
Police resources are frequently wasted for false reports of burglaries in Baltimore. The False Alarm Reduction Program, introduced in 2003, requires residential and business owners to register their burglar alarm systems with the city. In 2002, police responded to more than 125,000 burglar alarm calls, 98 percent of which were false, according to Young.
Davis said he's waiting to hear from the Housing Authority, which runs the program, to obtain more recent figures on the number of false alarms.
Young wants to investigate whether compromises — such as payment plans — can keep people in their homes and also make sure city bills are paid, Davis said.
At the City Council meeting Monday night, Young's resolution was supported by the rest of the council.
Departing Councilwoman Belinda Conaway said she's received several inquiries from city residents "eagerly awaiting" some help on this issue.
"We've been getting calls … from people affected by this," she said.
City residents are not fined for their first two false alarms, but beginning with the third response, users are charged an escalating fee that begins at $50 and can climb as high as $1,000 for residential units and $2,000 for businesses.
"The volume of false alarm calls that our police officers respond to on an annual basis is staggering," Young said in a statement. "We need to make sure that this program, which is intended to free up valuable police resources, is working properly."