Editor's note: This story has been updated with the following information: The has extended the deadline for registration of alarms without incurring late fees to Feb. 13. Those who do not register by then will incur a $50 late fee. The registration form will be available at the city website "within the next few days," or residents can pick up the form at the Police Department, a police spokesman said.
Wauwatosa property owners who have alarm systems in their homes or businesses — any kind of alarm — will be required by law to register those systems each year and pay an annual $20 fee for the privilege.
And those who don't register will have to pay another $50 each time police respond to an alarm.
That's the gist of an ordinance approved Tuesday night by the Common Council on a tight 9-7 vote.
The annual registration update requires alarm owners to provide information such as:
- Who owns the property
- Whether there is an alarm service company
- Who lives in the home — including such information as whether there are invalids or disabled occupants
- Whether there are dogs on the premises
- Who the keyholders are and what their current contact information is
That kind of information is not collected by alarm companies, police officials say. When they get an alarm call, they are given only an address and no idea what to expect when they get there. The registry information would allow them to be better prepared when they arrive, they say.
Vote surprisingly close
Contrary to on the matter before the holiday recess, the registry requirement and fee will apply to all alarms of any kind, including audible alarms that sound only on the premises and do not alert the police through a company subscriber network.
That, police say, is because audible alarms also produce calls for service when property owners, tenants, neighbors or passers-by hear and report them. Police respond to those calls in the same way and with the same force as they would to an alert from an alarm service company.
There was little expectation that the vote would be as close as it was, given that it was a public safety request from the — usually a slam-dunk — and that it got fairly strong support from the Budget and Finance Committee on its first hearing.
But that support waned Tuesday as a number of council members said they had heard from upset constituents and thought that a new mandatory fee on alarm owners and subscribers was unfair.
In the second committee hearing before the full council vote, Ald. Cheryl Berdan said, "I think it's a great program to have a registry. But I also think that if you have an alarm system, those are conscientious people already trying to protect their lives and property. I just can't support making it mandatory."
So adamantly against the proposal was Ald. Michael Walsh that when the item was introduced, he quickly made a "motion to deny," an effort to bring a negative vote that would deep-six the measure.
Walsh's position was that the police response to alarms should be a community "cost of doing business" akin to all taxpayers supporting other police services such as providing police officers in public schools, regardless of whether the citizen has children in those schools.
On the opposite side, Ald. Dennis McBride pointed out that the council had already budgeted for the new registration fees and that failing to pass the ordinance change would leave a hole in the Police Department budget. He also said that if the police said that it was needed, the council should take heed.
"Our very fine Police Department has made a recommendation for the safety of our citizens, for the safety of our police officers and for fiscal responsibility," McBride said.
Ald. Jill Organ, who said she has an alarm system and pays $360 a year for it, said that another $20 a year was not much for added peace of mind.
False alarms, response in force incur costs
According to the police, all alarm calls are considered serious even though the majority turn out to be false. So alarm owners tend to get a higher level of service at added cost, police say.
"We go to a lot of alarms every year, about 1,000," Police Chief Barry Weber said. "It would be good to know what we're going to find when we get there. It's a safety factor.
"It's always a two-car affair, and most are false alarms. But if the resident has a vicious dog, I'd like to know.
"Those are high-risk calls. If there's a door open, guns are out."
Acting mayor faces a tough opening night
Near the end of the debate, the question came up of how Ald. Eric Meaux, who is Common Council president and was on his first night as acting mayor after Jill Didier stepped down the same day, could vote. The mayor does not vote with the 16-member council unless there is a tie.
City Attorney Alan Kesner explained that unlike some cities, Wauwatosa has no ordinance spelling out an acting mayor's voting role, and that there was no guidance in state statutes. He suggested that in the absence of such guidance, Meaux could make up his mind whether to vote or not depending on the issue at hand, as long as he informed the council in advance of his intention to vote or not.
Meaux said that while he did not want to create the possibilty of a tie vote — which amounts to the same as the defeat of a measure — that he would vote on this proposal.
Walsh's motion to deny was defeated 9-7, with Meaux voting against, and McBride quickly followed with a motion to approve the original proposal, which passed 9-7, with no one changing sides.