Public Comment

Police, Burglar Alarms, Fees & Budget Cuts

By Carol Gesbeck DeWitt
Tuesday July 20, 2010 - 08:36:00 AM

It appears that due to serious budget shortfalls in Oakland 80 police officers will be laid off. One newscast showed a long list of police services that are expected to be severely reduced. On this list is responding to burglary calls. 

Several years ago Oakland, in the never ending quest to come up with new categories to tax the citizens and raise revenues, decided to charge an annual fee to homeowners, renters and businesses that install burglar alarm systems hooked to monitoring companies. “Fees” and “surcharges” are euphemisms for taxes and allow Oakland to in fact raise taxes by bypassing the ballot. Oakland claims that this fee is needed to cover the high cost of money and manpower to deal with false alarms.  

Alarm owners must register their alarm for a valid permit and provide the required information and pay the annual permit fee of; $25 residential, $35 commercial. If an alarm goes off and the police respond there is a $70 fee charged for each response if the owner does not have a valid permit. Additionally, for all alarms, there is also a false alarm services fee schedule. Each false burglar alarm activation : $84. Each false robbery or panic alarm activation: $156. (Unless canceled by your monitoring center dispatcher prior to police arrival.) Appeals cost $25, a waste of time and money since one is unlikely to win an appeal. Oakland will not release statistics regarding the percentage of appeals that prevail.  

Until this year there was a waiver of the annual permit fee for seniors. This year I qualify for this waiver. Unfortunately, this year the senior waiver has been discontinued. I have an alarm system on my home because, as a widow and senior I fear for my safety and have long felt that the police are unable to provide basic protections to the citizens of Oakland.  

To add insult to injury, the address for sending the annual permit fees is a P O Box in San Francisco! It appears that our dear police department is farming out this collection and registration system to workers in another city. It is also noteworthy that Oakland is not held accountable for providing exact figures for how much money this permit fee process generates and how all of that money is actually spent. It is likely that alarm permit holders are unfairly subsidizing other budget deficits in money strapped Oakland. 

Alarm owners pay monthly monitoring fees, usually in the $20 to $30 range to their alarm company. Besides an enhanced sense of security and peace of mind, having an alarm that is hooked up to monitoring sometimes gains owners an annual homeowners/renters insurance fee reduction or discount. (Now wiped out by the City annual permit fee.) 

What exactly will these fees and fines be providing in burglary protection if the police chose to decline responding to alarm calls? To those stuck paying the “permit fee” it feels more like a “penalty fee” for having an alarm and not trusting the police to meet their basic imperative to “serve and protect” and reduce and prevent burglaries and catch perpetrators. I’ve had an alarm for 26 years and have never had a false alarm requiring police response. Perhaps I would be better off canceling my alarm company and spending my money on a gun? I should have some measure of feeling safe in my home. 

For alarms and monitoring companies to provide burglary protection there must be an appropriate and prompt local police response. If Oakland is going to intentionally reduce appropriate burglary response due to budget cuts there is a strong case for all local alarm service providers to coordinate a class action preemptive lawsuit demanding that Oakland provide timely response to alarm company dispatch calls to the police. Property insurance companies also have a stake in this issue and may decide to join legal action. I am urging my alarm company and homeowners insurance carrier to become proactive in this regard. It is likely that Oakland insurance rates will increase if police response to burglaries declines. 

Further observations and comments on the high cost of the Oakland Police Department shed more light on the disastrous economic situation facing Oakland and the consequences from a decline in law enforcement protections and responses. 

It has been reported in the Oakland Tribune Letter to Editor 6/24/10, Rashidah Grinage, Director of PUEBLO Oakland: “Oakland Taxpayers spend 75 cents of every city tax dollar on police and fire. Lowest starting pay is $71,841 compared to New York City with a 59.4 % higher cost of living starting pay of $46,228.” Also, the 6/29/10 “Our Opinion” piece: “City police employees can retire at age 50 with an annual retirement of $100,000 from a retirement system that they have not had to pay any money into.” 

Obviously, Oakland and other cities cannot afford to continue to compensate employees with such generous packages. I spent my working career as a Local 250 Service Employees Union member. My retirement does not come even close to such lucrative benefits. Historically, the trade union movement in America was fought and struggled over for many years and generations by predominantly blue-collar workers. At one time most union workers were employed by major corporations such as railroads, steel mills, coalmines and factories all across America.  

In more recent years manufacturing jobs in this country have been shipped to third world countries leaving countless workers unemployed and underemployed and struggling with minimum wage/non union jobs. Over the years nurses, hospital workers, teachers, university employees, law enforcement, fire protection, prison guards and many other assorted public employees have become unionized. Instead of corporations and businesses employing the largest portion of unionized workers more likely than not, nowadays union workers are paid with tax dollars. When businesses and corporations were negotiating union contracts they had bottom line financial issues to contend with. If private sector company profits were insufficient, wages and benefits improvements could not be justified. 

Unfortunately, in the public sector there are no CEOs and boards of directors obliged to deal with present and future bottom line cost constraints. Elected officials locally, state and nationally could ignore future realities and acquiesce to union demands and voter/constituent pressure to ever increasing and generous salaries and benefits for workers. Elected officials were/are likely to be retired and living with generous retirement benefits by the time the economic realities come home to roost. 

Unfortunately, tough economic times and financial commitment realities have collided and most lower 48 states and communities are facing impossible budget deficits. Alaska has huge oil interests’ cash to manage economic issues. The rest of the country has generous union benefits that can no longer be sustained without huge tax increases.  

In cities such as Oakland, the population is largely low and moderate-income homeowners. The portion of wealthy taxpayers in Oakland is too small to make up budget shortfalls. It is becoming more apparent that as horrible as bankruptcy is for a community it may be the only way out of long-term obligations to retired public workers. 

The citizens of Oakland need to pay close attention to Vallejo and any other city that goes through the process. Bankruptcy may be the only sensible solution to the many economic problems confronting Oakland. It would allow for a thorough, top to bottom clean out/clean up/streamlining of city government and processes, not to mention sensible and fair renegotiation of all city wide union contracts. Clearly, underserved and crime riddled Oakland residents who live on low incomes and are struggling just to pay rent, mortgages, insurance, taxes, utilities, food, transportation, clothes and other necessary costs of living are less than sympathetic to the plight of highly paid unionized city workers. The majority of us are retiring with little more than minimum Social Security benefits, shrunken 401Ks and minimum private retirement coverage and have seething resentment that the Oakland City Council is now considering putting a property parcel tax on the next ballot of over $300 per parcel to continue to compensate the local city workforce so that they can comparatively live and retire like aging kings and queens. 

By Carol Gesbeck DeWitt