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5.30.24 – ARL Now -By Daniel Egitto and Jared Serre

Arlington has failed to collect more than $1 million in security alarm registration fees over the past four years, according to county data. The Arlington County Board passed an ordinance in 2020 requiring all alarm owners to pay a $25 annual registration fee for every alarm system.

Based on the estimated 13,492 systems in the county at the time, the county was expected to generate an additional $337,000 in revenue every year.

In reality, however, the county has collected just a fraction of that. Since 2020, the county told ARLnow that it has received just $80,760 in alarm registration fees.

This happened even as county data shows that 3,090 additional alarms were registered with the county between the 2020 and 2023 fiscal years. To date, based on alarm registration numbers, Arlington would have collected about $1.5 million by fully assessing the annual fee.

Prior to the 2020 ordinance, alarm system registration required payment of a one-time fee, for commercial properties only.

“Arlington County continues to explore options to make false alarm enforcement more effective and efficient,” the county said in a statement.

Alarm registration funds are meant to help “recover some of the costs associated with false alarm responses” and recoup the administrative costs of running a registration database, the 2020 report says. ARLnow’s experience in monitoring local public safety radio channels over the past decade-and-a-half suggests that the vast majority of alarm activations turn out to be false alarms.

When alarm users register with the Arlington County Police Department, they provide up-to-date contact information in addition to payment. The county report promises “a significant reduction in the amount of staff time spent trying to locate the property owner in the event of a triggered alarm instead of responding to other public safety needs in the County.”

Some Arlington residents, however, are apparently unaware of the annual registration requirement. One resident told us that he contacted the county last month after finding out about it.

“In the 15 years I have had a home alarm system,” the resident wrote, “I have NEVER been billed by the County for this.”

The county says it contacts alarm users if they fail to pay the $25 fee. If people fail to register within 30 days of the warning notice, they are supposed to receive a $50 fine.

Alarm companies, according to the county, are responsible for ensuring alarms get registered.

“Since the county adopted the annual registration fee for alarms in 2020, the Police Department’s False Alarm Unit has been working proactively with alarm companies to ensure information regarding the requirements of the ordinance are shared with alarm users,” the county said. “Additionally, the Police Department has shared information about the ordinance at community meetings and in public communications, including on social media.”

An audit of the county’s false alarm program focused on identifying unregistered systems is in the works, the county says.

“Arlington County continues to explore options to make false alarm enforcement more effective and efficient,” a county spokesperson said in a statement.

ARLnow’s tipster questioned why alarm users pay these fees through a separate system from the Customer Access and Payment Portal (CAP), which residents use to pay bills and file taxes. County staff said this is “because of the comparatively small amount of revenue collected and the cost that would be incurred to integrate in this way.”

Nationwide, about 90-99% of all automatic security or panic alarms turn out to be false, according to an Urban Institute study.

In addition to the annual registration fee, the ordinance established escalating fees for false alarms.

“The false alarm fee schedule will incrementally increase the fee by $100 for each additional response after the ninth, starting with $600 for the tenth alarm increasing to a maximum fee of $1,500,” the county staff report said.

The county has collected about $745,000 in false alarm fees since fiscal year 2020, according to data in the fiscal year 2025 proposed budget. Arlington police responded to 1,989 false alarms in the 2023 fiscal year and 2,361 the year prior.

“Responses to false alarms divert Police resources away from legitimate emergencies, resulting in a safety hazard for residents and Police personnel,” said the staff report.

Photo via Ring