The anatomy of a near ordinance disaster: A look back

 - 
Monday, April 1, 2002

Since 1988 the professional alarm contractors in Palm Beach
County have enjoyed a positive relationship with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's (PBSO) Alarm Unit.

This all nearly came to an end in 1998 when then Sheriff Neumann decided that alarm companies abused the system and were the cause of many of his problems. He even considered that the Sheriff's Department was a private guard service at the mercy of more than 260 alarm companies and 70,000 burglar alarms installed throughout the county. Just a year earlier many alarm companies supported Sheriff Neuman, campaigning against the incumbent sheriff. Now, Neuman was proposing legislation that was against not only the interests of the alarm industry, but many felt against the people he was elected to protect.

The alarm industry learned that the sheriff was about to propose a new ordinance that would include a No Response policy that hadn't ever been included.

THE BATTLE BEGINS
Though there were several aspects of the ordinance that the alarm industry objected to, only one provision caused a long and arduous battle between several forces. The proposal included a provision that after six alarm dispatches in a calendar year, the subscriber would be placed  on  a  No Response status without any provision for appeal or reinstatement. The sheriff decided that if he stopped responding to alarms, he said he could save the cost of 400 officers.

When asked to meet with representatives of the alarm industry, the sheriff declined, saying he knew everything we intended to say and there was no need for further discussion. The industry mounted a grass roots effort to notify each and every one of its subscribers through company mailings about what the sheriff intended to do. While several companies did nothing, which is typical, many spent substantial time, effort, and funds to get the word out to the people about how this would affect them.

THE ROLE OF POLITICS

Sensing that this issue was about to become a political hot potato, the sheriff asked the county's Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) to review the ordinance and either support it or suggest changes. When the sheriff's proposal was presented to the CJC for review and approval, the industry turned out in force to speak at the meeting. Eventually the sheriff himself asked some of the industry representatives to meet outside in an effort to negotiate a compromise. The parties agreed that if the sheriff modified his position on No Response without appeal, the industry would not object to the new ordinance. But once the ordinance was turned over to the CJC, they had their own ideas and a new version of the ordinance was born.

A DIFFERENT ANIMAL

This version was entirely different from the one in effect at the time, and the proposed version drafted by the sheriff. The CJC decided that alarm companies were getting a free ride from the sheriff, and they felt that the alarm companies should be held accountable for the false dispatches.

Immediately the industry gathered to discuss strategy and ways to overcome these new provisions. The CJC's version was on a fast track and it was supported by the sheriff, who himself probably never imagined the dramatic turn of events and the penalties directed at the alarm companies. The ordinance used a complicated formula to determine how much in fines an alarm company would pay. Basically, alarm companies would pay fines based on the number of customers, and incremental to their false dispatch percentage.

JOINING FORCES

The Alarm Association of Florida, on behalf of its members and along with some of the large national companies, hired legal counsel to speak on their behalf and represent them at the County Commission meeting. This action only infuriated the commissioners and worked against the industry. The ordinance came before the commission on Dec. 21, 1999 for final approval.

During that meeting the County Commissioners listened to testimony from several industry representatives indicating the new ordinance wouldn't work, and that the industry had little to no input on its development. The commissioners were advised that at least on one occasion the Sub-Committee Chairman told us our input wasn't welcome.

After voting on the ordinance one commissioner made an amending motion telling the sheriff he should come back in six months with the input from the alarm industry on how to make the ordinance better. Another commissioner said that be believed the Sheriff's Department should be responsible for allocating 400 deputies since it was that department which was obligated to make sure the ordinance worked.

There was never any chance that 400 deputies would be released for other duties. In September of 2000, just months after enacting the new ordinance, the alarm unit coordinator came to the AAF and admitted it didn't work.

At the same time this was happening, the sheriff was now seeking re-election. This time, the alarm industry met with each of the opposition candidates to determine which would support the alarm industry's position.

The AAF and its members took an unprecedented step and formally endorsed and financially supported Captain Ed Bieluch who was running against Sheriff Neuman. Captain Bieluch guaranteed that he would work towards repealing the ordinance that he felt was "unmanageable and impractical for all concerned."

SUPPORT AT THE TOP

Captain Bieluch was elected sheriff in November 2000 and took office on Jan. 1, 2001. The AAF was given an open door policy to speak with and meet with the sheriff every time it requested to do so. Shortly after his inauguration, he appointed Lt. James Kersey as the new alarm unit coordinator who began work on changing the ordinance. More than a year went by as version after version of the ordinance reviewed and modified.

After composing an ordinance that met with Sheriff Bieluch's wishes and in concert with the AAF, the industry thought the ordinance was ready to go directly to the County Commission for approval. Somehow the CJC once again got involved in the process and changes were suggested. Lt. Kersey stood his ground on several issues saying that the sheriff was not negotiable on those points and that they were prepared to go to the commissioners without the CJC approval, if necessary.

Finally on Jan. 28, 2002 the CJC approved the ordinance and recommended it be forwarded to the County Commission for approval.

Roy Pollack is a Certified Protection Professional (CPP) and NICET Level IV certified (SET). He is also the immediate past president of the Alarm Association of Florida and has been involved in the alarm industry for 28 years. Pollack served as chairman of the Palm Beach County AAF Chapter False Alarm Ordinance Committee during the three years that the alarm industry was working on the alarm ordinance. He is currently the compliance manager for Guardian International, Inc. in Hollywood, Fla.