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City to charge $350 for false fire alarms (Toronto Star)

Toronto Star LogoBy David Rider

SafeTech talks fire protection in The Toronto StarPhone in a fire alarm that turns out to be false and the city will burn you with a bill of $350 for every emergency vehicle dispatched. The fee, one tiny revenue generator that helped balance Toronto’s $9.2 billion operating budget, has triggered warning bells from alarm companies even as politicians’ congratulatory speeches were ringing through City Hall.

Toronto expects to send out 10,000 false-alarm invoices per year, generating $6.6 million even after a financial analyst and accounting assistant are hired to process them.

“Ouch!” said Sean O’Leary, owner of Safe Tech Alarm Systems, when told of the fee that was previously levied only against repeat offenders. “That’s a real problem.”

Safe Tech has about 2,000 Toronto customers with smoke detectors wired to their security systems. If an alarm sounds and a Safe Tech monitoring station can’t reach the homeowner, the company calls the fire department.And it doesn’t matter if the homeowner calls back moments later to report it was just a smoky fish fry.

“Once a dispatch has been made, even if it’s known to be false, (fire trucks) still go,” said O’Leary.“The fee wouldn’t be fair,” he said, adding he needs to know if the bills will be sent to his firm, potentially setting up fights with customers.

Mayor David Miller hailed the 2010 operating budget as a huge achievement, saying it preserves city services and holds the property tax hike to 4 per cent. He jokingly wrote the headline for reporters: “Lowest taxes (in the GTA), unbeatable services, great city.”But en route to erasing a $433 million deficit without the traditional annual bailout from the province, the city is releasing a swarm of small fee hikes that will also sting kids who swim, motorists who park on the street and utility companies that puncture city roads.Details of all the new fees are to be released Thursday.

Budget documents show user fees will generate an additional $13 million, but $9 million of that is from new fees, most of which will come from alarm abusers. (The change is expected to generate only $4.7 million in 2010 because, if passed by council along with the rest of the budget, it won’t come into effect until May 1.)

Almost $900,000 of the alarm fees are expected to be billed to another city agency – Toronto Community Housing Corp. – because 14 per cent of false alarms come from public housing sites.City manager Joe Pennachetti was asked if a good Samaritan who calls 911 because smoke is billowing from a neighbour’s house will be handed a bill if there’s no fire.

“I would say no, but you’ll have to talk to the fire chief in terms of details like that,” Pennachetti said.

Toronto Fire Chief Bill Stewart could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.Councillor Shelley Carroll, who heads the budget committee, predicted that “perhaps the most controversial” new user fee will be a one-time $50 registration fee for families signing up for city recreation programs. Families already registered will be spared the fee, she said, adding that other recreation charges are also being hiked but will remain “well below market value.”The $50 fee is a bit of a sour start in Toronto for Rene and Gianina Berrospi, who moved to the city from Lima, Peru, one week ago with their daughter Alessia, who is almost 3.Before arriving, they asked Toronto relatives about the resources available to kids in the city, and were told of the many publicly funded community centres.

“Perhaps it would’ve been better if we stayed away,” Rene, a lawyer in Peru, joked after being told about the increased recreation fees. He can try to register now; otherwise he and his wife can’t afford it since both are unemployed.

Carroll noted that the city has programs to ensure low-income Torontonians get access to recreation and other programs.Others said they are happy to pay $50 if it improves city facilities.

“It’s like a club membership,” said Don Johnston, whose 5-year-old daughter Sophie is taking swimming lessons. “If you’ve been to any of the community centres, you’d know they could be better. If you can connect the dots between the $50 and better recreation centres, I’d be happy. I’d pay more.”

Also being hit are drivers. Mayor David Miller’s $60 vehicle registration fee isn’t going up but the cost of parking on the street is – from $143.40 per year to $157.74 – while the levy for getting a parking pad is also expected to jump.

The Toronto Star