City of PA subjecting residents to unreasonable fines Palo Alto Issues, posted by a concerned resident, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 10, 2009 at 2:55 pm
We are residents of the midtown neighborhood of Palo Alto and are very happy and fortunate to be part of this city and community. When we moved here 2 years ago we decided to install a burglar alarm in our house because we were reading about the increase in petty burglaries – an unfortunate side effect of the current economy. Once we installed the alarm, we were told that we need to get a city permit. So we went ahead and filled out the application and paid $35 for the alarm permit. We received a sticker and posted it next to our front door.
More than a year and half went by and our house has continued to be peacefully monitored by the alarm company with no incidents. Then suddenly we get a letter in the mail from the city that we are delinquent in paying our alarm permit fees and they are fining us $250. We were surprised with this letter since we were not aware that we had been delinquent. We never received a renewal notice from the city. If we had we would have paid it promptly. We have an impeccable credit history and have paid our bills on time all our lives.
We called the city and told them that we never received the renewal notice and it did not occur to us that we needed to proactively pay the $35 annually since it was not something that was an established routine for us since we were new to the city. The city clerk said that it was not their problem that we did not receive the renewal notice. It is only a courtesy that they send the renewal notice and hence the fine would not be waived. She gave us an option to have a hearing of our case with the city administrative officer. We went ahead and scheduled the hearing and my wife went over to present our case last week. At the hearing there were nearly half a dozen other residents that had similar issues. In fact, the person before my wife was a 10-year resident of Palo Alto with a record of paying his alarm permit fees on time every year except this year when he did not receive a renewal notice. The officer questioned the clerk on whether she was sure that she mailed out the notices. He then told my wife and others that he would get back the following week with a final decision. On a side note, the clerk mentioned that not paying the $35 on time was an offense that could be prosecuted with jail time, but the city was instead letting us off with just a $250 fine. I think this statement was somewhat offensive and borderline indirect bullying.
We heard back from the city administrator this week and he said that the city has made a final decision that the fine will stand. Firstly, we find this decision unfair given the circumstances and the fact that they did not even send us a warning before fining us. Secondly, we think $250 is an unreasonable fine for a $35 payment(let alone telling us that we can be put in jail.) They could have at least reduced the fine given that we made a good faith attempt to explain ourselves. We understand the city is in budget difficulties, but this is no way to treat its residents. Such a fine seems onerous and shows no respect for good tax-paying citizens that did not intend to do something willful or unlawful.
I am a proud resident of Palo Alto and it just feels irresponsible to let this go without some further action on my part to ensure that other residents don’t get treated the same way. Hence, this posting.
My open question to the community is, what do I do next? Just suck it up, pay the fine and move on? Or pay the fine and dispute it in some manner? Or bring this issue up in front of some forum? As you can imagine $250 is too small an amount to pursue a legal route. But $250 is not a trivial amount especially in this economic environment.
Posted by Marvin, a resident of the Charleston Gardens neighborhood, on Apr 10, 2009 at 3:04 pm
Well, it depends how far you want to go with it--you could file a lawsuit. Not sure how the city administrator reached his final decision. You may want to find out.
Also remember that our city needs money to pay for the new farmer's market (aka subsidizing ONE yolo county farmer), the color of palo alto, donation to senior games, dysfunctional city website, raises and bonuses for city employees, Drekmeier's sustainability consultants etc. So any money they can squeeze from the citizens is helpful
Sounds like the city is just lawyering you on it. Probably best just to pay the fine and put the renewal on your own calendar.
"4.39.060 Registration of alarm.
(a) It shall be unlawful to operate, or cause to be operated, an alarm system on any premises in the City of Palo Alto without an alarm registration. An alarm user shall register with the police department by filling out a registration form with his home address, and business and residence telephone numbers. In addition, he shall provide the police department with a list of persons responsible for the premises protected by the alarm system. This list shall contain at least three names, one of which may be that of the alarm business maintaining the alarm system. The list shall be kept current by the alarm user and shall supply home and business telephone numbers of responsible persons. In addition, the registration form shall contain any information deemed necessary by the chief of police to carry out the purposes of this chapter. A fee adopted in the municipal fee schedule shall be charged for registration. Any information contained in this form shall be confidential and shall not constitute a public record. An alarm registration shall be valid for a period of one year from the date of issuance unless sooner revoked.
(b) Upon request by the police department, the alarm user, or a responsible party, shall proceed to the scene of the alarm within thirty minutes and render any necessary service. Such service shall include, but not be limited to, opening the premises so that said premises may be searched by responding police officers.
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of the University South neighborhood, on Apr 10, 2009 at 8:04 pm
It sounds like someone(s) on staff forget basic customer service, what every good business person knows. In this case it sounds like you should have been treated under "the customer is always right" rule and someone enforced the printed regulation without thinking it through.
I like the idea of posting the incident as you did.
I wonder what would happen if you wrote a nice note to the City Manager musing about whether this is the way he and the Coucnil think resident "customers" should be treated.
Posted by A long time resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Apr 10, 2009 at 9:16 pm
As long as we elect to our council people who are tied at the hip to the businesses in town this will happen. They are here to protect their corporations from taxes and fees that will affect their profits.
Being on the council is part of their jobs as executives and friends of businesses. GET OVER IT! Thats the way thirld world countries work or thirld world cities. Promice one thing to get elected then S-- you when elected!!!
The police will not ticket or fine Galsoling trucks, car carriers, red light runners, speeders ,etc even when going thru school zones. These people may be employees serving the corporations ,working for the corporations, etc. Council attitude: "NO Fines For Our Friends"
The city could finance the new police station on traffic fines if they wanted to!!
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of the University South neighborhood, on Apr 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm
There are a couple of logical problems with the "it's the stupid City Council" arguments that regularly get posted here.
First, we have regular elections and if residents, particularly in PA, were getting messed around by Council, we would have different Council members by now. Moreover, it stretches common sense to suggest that Council members would regularly diss residents.
Second, while Town Square posters have definite opinions about "whose pocket" Council members sit in, they have DIFFERENT opinions. Some think Council is beholden to business, some think environmental folks have taken over the town, some think neighborhood groups too often have the ear of Council.
In all of this back and forth I can't find a good reason why there would be a great conspiracy to mess the poster around just to get $250. It sounds like a human screw up and not the kind of customer care any of us would want. He/she has a good complaint and there should be a way to use this example to reduce the chance something like this happens again.
Posted by PointOfView, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 11, 2009 at 4:18 pm
Here's the logic.
Not that it would apply to "PA," but I've seen elections that were influenced by the money available to promote one side over another.
The theory is that if everyone were fully informed, and had sufficient time to dig through the spin and learn the reality, and also the time, information, and tools form a reasonable estimation of the ramifications of a given election result, then outcome x would occur.
But since most people are fully occupied without putting time into deciding how to vote, the money applied to spin information, hide information, to provide selective data to support one side, can influence an election, and cause outcome y to occur instead of outcome x.
Perhaps not in Palo Alto, but in other places certain people, such as developers, have the potential to gain tremendous amounts of money depending on results of local government elections. At the same time, the amount of money necessary to impact an election is quite small in comparison to their potential gains.
The people involved with influencing elections in this way often simply do not register the well-being of current residents as relevant to their obligations to their employers.
It's not too hard to see what motivates a locally elected official. Do they make a well-considered plan for the benefit of the locality, and stick to it with periodic reviews and revisions, or are they inclined to change it when a developer or ideologue asks for it to be changed for their own benefit?
Do they lean toward focus on identity politics or high visibility activity, even though there may be little or no benefit to the locality they represent, or do they lean toward focus on the needs of the locality, even though there may be little visibility and no political statement to be made?
There are communities in which the local city council is, from the point of view of benefiting the locality they represent, quite stupid.
Posted by anonymous, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Apr 11, 2009 at 5:59 pm
I think this story is beyond unpleasant - it is unreasonable. City government services should operate in a reasonable and courteous manner. Thank you for informing us about this occurrence. PA city government should consider what kind of reputation they gain from such "service."
Posted by Resident, a resident of the Adobe-Meadows neighborhood, on Apr 12, 2009 at 8:56 am
Wow this is shocking. On the other hand the city's conduct is to be expected. This may be a leap, but it seems that with the democrats in power, local governments across the country feel they have every right to bully you. Government is in charge now these days. Just look at how Obama fired the Ceo of GM. Government is now supposed to be saving everyone with bailouts. Government is the answer. Government is all powerful. The New York Times reported today that college graduates no longer seeking to enter the disgraced financial sector now increasingly seek to work in government. Scary, huh? With all this police power to tax and spend and people increasingly seeing government as " the solution to our problems" comes abuse. After all, we are still a nation at war in Afghanistan, and Obama can still invoke war time "privileges". Government, that is Obama, did say we are in an economic war. How else do you think people who work for government to treat you when you are both the sheep that need to be protected and their source of revenue?
I disagree with Stephen Levy, who implies that government is benevolent and this was probably an isolated mistake. Instead I believe this behavior from Palo Alto is symptomatic of increasing government control.
Posted by stephen levy, a resident of the University South neighborhood, on Apr 12, 2009 at 11:00 am
Resident and I have reached agreement on two points--1) concerned resident got a bum deal and 2) it is possible to disagree without putting the other person down.
Personally, I was wondering how long it would take to blame the City staff's customer unfriendly behavior on President Obama. The idea that Obama would favor rigidly enforcing a City fine and get citizens mad is a stretch for me but I guess anything is possible.
I am more interested in having Resident and "long time resident" figure out whether it is the dastardly Democrats or the business interests who control these actions and reached way down into the city staff to convince someone to treat concerned resident so poorly. Now perhaps they are consistent and it is the dastardly Democrat business interests, but I suspect there is a disagreement here about who is the real villian.
I still think the unfortunate screw up is a more likely scenario than a vast conspiracy but, then again, perhaps Council is controlled by the Somali pirates. That could make sense becasue the pirates certainly qualify as "business interests" although I have no idea about their politics.
If it is indeed the pirates who messed around concerned resident, there are posters on Paul Losch's pirates thread who have the answer. Bring back Teddy Roosevelt and send in the navy. But wait a minute, I see a problem here. The Navy is part now of the Democrat controlled government so we would be sending in the government to save ourselves from the government.
I have some sympathy for people who say we should handle this through the election process. This seems like a civilized approach. Unfortunately, most people who call for elections to throw the bums out having been doing so since the beginning of elections and apart from the problem of reaching agreement about who the bums are, a series of elections in Palo Alto or Sacramento and elsewhere don't seem to have quieted the call to throw the bums out.
Perhaps blame and anger are not the most effective approach to helping concerned resident get his/her $250 back and stopping this from happening again.
Posted by Anna, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Apr 12, 2009 at 11:45 am
It is interesting to me that Stephen Levy claims to be a proponent of respectful discussion on these forums.
In my opinion, his response to Resident is as disrespectful as anything I've seen on here, albeit wrapped in more genteel language than is often seen.
Resident's point - that the experience of concerned resident is symptomatic of a general trend towards more government control of our lives - is something I disagree with, but something open to reasonable debate.
Levy's biting, cynical post attributes to Resident by inference things Resident never said or implied. So we have Levy spouting about allegedly anti Democratic Party conspiracy theories, sophomoric references to a supposed Pirate/Council connection, and similar disrespectful language that inhibits rather than engages good debate on Resident's point.
Posted by Neal, a resident of the Community Center neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 9:33 am
When the City of Palo Alto is in need of money they can be ruthless. They endulge is deliberate and calculated "fund raising" activities because they can. They do it for revenue generating purposes and tell you it's for public safety. When the coffers need filling they send the meter maids into quiet residential neighborhoods looking for parking scofflaws. I got a ticket because my car, which was in no way impeding traffic, had its front tire 19 inches away from the curb. The $250 fine for not renewing the alarm permit is a disgrace and you have my sympathies. Just be careful about how you park your car. City Hall's attitude is that no money raising violation is too trivial to enforce these days. Remember this at election time.
Posted by resident, a resident of the Adobe-Meadows neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 10:10 am
So this is the kind of nonsensical contentless response one gets from Stephen Levy when you disagree with him? LOL! Good thing the Weekly will restrict his blog to registered users, i.e., to people who only agree with him! LOLOL!
Posted by Ada, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 10:24 am
If I were you I would fight it. The $250 fine is beyond unreasonable! I also fail to understand the reason for the annual fee for alarm system. The city on the opposite should encourage residents to put alarm systems, because they supposedly deter burglars and save time and efforts for police. And thank you for posting the story, people should be aware of how bureacratic and useless the City Administration is.
Posted by kt, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 10:41 am
Get used to higher and higher fees, new taxes and anything else the city can do to get money out of your wallet. You see the city can't keep on increasing the pay of its employees by 6, 7, or 8 percent a year, and it can't pay staggering pension or health-care costs for its employees on current revenues. So it is desperately looking elsewhere to tax. The idea of laying off staff or cutting their pay isn't even being considered. And those bonuses the Daily Post reported on last fall -- the city continuing them too. So get used to fees like this one. There will be more in the future.
Posted by narnia, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 10:44 am
The big east coast city where I have a house charges me $50.00/year for burglar alarm system. This covers operating costs for 2 false alarm emergency visits by police and processing fees.
Is $250 a hefty fine? yes but the excuse that there was no notification is kind of silly. Get your schedule in order.
It's $350.00 for the same offense in Philadelphia, in Baltimore is $500.00 and it can get up to 1,000.00 dollars depending on how many false alarms you had. Other small cities comparable to Palo Alto charge varies from $250 to $500, but in the Bay Area (small cities) Palo Alto has the most expensive fine and I think it's justifiable. After all those with burglar alarms get not only faster service but also responses to false alarms and that response is a city expense that's not fully paid by fines. Those without burglar alarms do not create false alarms. When police is responding to a false alarm they also deviate their resources to those with a burglar alarm. So pay up and have your schedule on hand. And don't forget that the fiscal services (IRS, FTB et al) do not send you renewal notices for non payment- they just charge you...
Posted by PoPo from another city, a resident of another community, on Apr 13, 2009 at 2:36 pm
I do not live or work in Palo Alto, but I am a police officer in another city and I can tell you that false burglar alarms are a major drain on our resources. We seem to have several houses that are habitual offenders. Although I do feel a $250 fine is excessive for failing to register your alarm, I would love to see a fee for false alarms.
Posted by yep, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Apr 13, 2009 at 4:25 pm
PoPo, I agree that false alarms are a major expense. That is why Palo Alto introduced the $35 a year fee for an alarm permit. They also have a tiered set of fines based on the number of false alarms the Police need to attend in addition to this fee.
That is all fair, and not what the OP is complaining about. The issue here is a $250 fine for what, effectively, is late payment. That is what is unacceptable.
Posted by resident, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, on Apr 14, 2009 at 9:06 am
Even a doller also not easy to earn.If we are realy at fault we should pay the fine but not because of someones stupidity. Palo alto voters must not forget how we ware misled about high speed rail project.They will rip us off in every thing. City council members feel that their jobs are permanant. But if we the voters vote them out in election then they will know that we the voters are their boses.Palo alto is the home of the tecknology , now palo should become a home of the endding the bureaucracy.
Posted by Mom, a resident of the Green Acres neighborhood, on Apr 14, 2009 at 10:23 am
I have posted about the issue of fines and the City in the past. Let me see if I can dig up some links from previous Town Square posts. I agree with your points -- the city should not be using fines as a revenue stream, they should have a purpose and they should be levied in keeping with the spirit of the law over the letter of it.
I would like to approach the council over how to restructure some of the fines in order to achieve the goals without hurting families and goodwill toward the city, which has its own economic impact that I believe far outweighs any fines collected.
Posted by Mike, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Apr 14, 2009 at 2:09 pm
Seems like the city has got it exactly backwards: fine residents $250 for late alarm fees but NEVER ticket commercial gardeners with gas leaf blowers-for which a law was passed a few years ago after long and painful debate. I can drive down ANY street in Palo Alto during the week and encounter gas leaf blowers with 20 foot dust plumes around them.
On the other hand, maybe this is just Palo Alto's own version of redistribution of wealth.
Posted by Marino, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Apr 15, 2009 at 9:30 am
While I may have lowered the fine given this writer's "impeccable" credit (and I would've checked their utility bill payment history in Palo Alto, it they'd been late on paying bills then this wouldn't apply), Palo Alto did everything by the books. The resident may be a "customer" but, they are also breaking the law by operating an unregistered alarm. Forgive me folks but, let me ask you a question: What month does your car registration expire? I know mine, I think most do, if I don't get a renewal notice from DMV do you think they'll buy that excuse when I don't pay? I agree mail does get lost (more often by the recipient than that Post Office) but, there are a hundred ways you could remind yourself to pay the $35 fee, why should the city have to spend time (and yes, time is money) to send you another notice, call you, when this is your responsibility? There are avenues you could take to pursue this but, like a number of "customers" you will be indignant and you'll whine, and you'll do nothing, because as much as there is a "Palo Alto way" at city hall, there's a "Palo Alto way" among it's residents. The whine and complain and then, do nothing way. I believe any "final decision" also comes with a "if you don't agree you're next step would be to go to court" notice.
Again, I might have chosen to lower the fine but, it's good that I'm not the administrator because that sets a precedent for fine lowering for everyone who either purposefully or not, doesn't pay their bill. This is a lesson this "customer" will not soon forget and I guarantee they will operate within the confines of the law going forward. I wish I could have more sympathy but, it's not the City's fault that you didn't get your notice and didn't have something scheduled for this in your calendar.
Posted by News to me, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Apr 15, 2009 at 11:08 am
An annual alarm fee is news to me. I have had a home alarm system more than twenty years, and I have never heard of this fee. Will I get a fine from the city retrospectively covering twenty years? Probably, and with interest tacked on.
Posted by marino, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Apr 15, 2009 at 12:50 pm
The alarm fee came into existence at least 3-5 years ago so, if you've had your alarm system for 20 years, you'd only be responsible for when the fee was collected. My guess is that you haven't had an alarm since the fee was implemented and that's why the city isn't aware of your alarm (well, that, and the fact that you haven't told them).
Funny, you speak as if the city is out to get you, when obviously, they haven't come after you on this item. More funny, my guess is that, now that you know about the ordinance, you'll do nothing. You won't comply with it until you are forced to. Tell me I'm wrong, tell me you will call the city today and register it. I'd love to hear it. What's that saying about still "doing the right thing even when no one is watching"?
Like most people I get frustrated with government but, I definitely also understand where the attitude comes from when government gets frustrated too. As citizens of our community it's as much our responsibility to know these things as it is the governments to enforce and it's not hard to get into compliance, if you want to that is.
Posted by a concerned resident, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 15, 2009 at 9:29 pm
Thanks to everyone for your comments and suggestions.
Responding on a couple of the comments:
- Several folks suggest a law suit or class-action law suit. I just don't think this issue warrants the expenses on both the city's and my (and other residents') part if we can arrive at a solution that raises awareness of such fines and maybe reduces the onerous nature of them.
- "Outside Observer" asked when we spoke to the City Council. We did not speak to the Council. It was a hearing with a city officer.
- "Marino" compares this with DMV registrations. While this may sound good in theory, in reality this situation is quite different. People are well aware of their DMV registration expiring in a year since they are used to it. The month of expiration is staring at them every time they approach their car. On the other hand, the alarm permit is a small sticker at the bottom to the side of the front door. We don't tend to use the front door as much and never look at the sticker. Having said that I do admit that we broke the letter of the law and need to pay the fine. I am not disagreeing with that. But I do think the fine amount is unreasonable for the infraction.
Here is what I plan to do next,
1. Write to the city council/manager about this and see what they have to say.
2. Talk to the PA Weekly reporter (Sue) that commented above and see whether they can help in increasing the awareness about such fines.
I will post an update to the forum on how it goes. Thanks for all your support.
Posted by yep, a resident of the Crescent Park neighborhood, on Apr 16, 2009 at 10:02 am
Actually, CR, the real difference between DMV registrations and Alarm permits is that you have the non-operational vehicle option with a DMV registration.
If you are driving around the road, then you are obviously using your car and it needs to be registered. If you are living in your home, you may or may not be using your alarm. It may have been disconnected during the year so leveraging a $250 fine for not paying a $35 fee for an alarm you don't use is obviously not acceptable.
Which brings me to the what's been niggling me about this whole thing. As mentioned by someone else, if you've had an alarm for the last 10 years but it has never gone off then you wouldn't know about this fee. They only brought it in around 5 years ago. Even then, the way they introduced it was when the police attended an alarm at your house they left a note telling you, you need to get a permit. After that, if they then attended another false alarm at your house and you didn't have a permit, you got hit with the full fee. (ie: $250).
So, the only way the police knew you were still using your alarm was that they attended a false alarm at your house (they don't charge if it's a responding to a real alarm issue). They then found out that your alarm permit was out of date and charged you the $250 fine. Basically, you don't pay the $35 "insurance" and get hit with the full cost.
Posted by News to me, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, on Apr 16, 2009 at 10:33 am
Dear Marino and others,
Well, the city does know we have an alarm system, because when we installed it we had to register it with them. And we have been fined when it has gone off, so they know from that as well. But the license fee is still "news to me."
Considering all this discussion, how about an article in the Weekly informing the community of this regulation? Or an insert in a utilities bill?
Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Apr 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm
Sounds like the original poster ran into an obnoxious bureaucrat. Of course the fines should be waived in this case.
S/he should contact the reporter--making it public is probably the best way to get it resolved.
Stephen Levy, you let the Forum get under your skin. Look, understand some posters here have a chip and use the topics to vent on their particular grudge. You'll recognize them soon enough. It's easy enough to slip up and vent back, but you're better off stepping away from the computer and filtering a bit. Particularly, frankly, because you're using your name.
Remember, you're writing for an audience here--as well as to the person to whom you're directly responding.
Posted by narnia, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Apr 16, 2009 at 6:24 pm
OhlonePar, I disagree that the city should waive the fine, even though the fine seems a little high. Every year lots of people move. Suppose they all say "sorry, I'm not from these parts. I had no idea, so I shouldn't be fined" Now let us extend that excuse to everything. Here you can't make a right turn on a red light, there motorbikes can split lanes, in another place you didn't know you need a permit to change the color of your house,,,,etc (there are thousands of examples). Most people can have perfectly good explanations for non payment on time so most of us can skip the fine. What kind of ordinance do we have when we forgive most fines? none. Let us try anarchy if you think it works. Nobody needs to pay any fines. For that matter why pay the permit at all?
It's difficult to see if the Midtwon resident is objecting to the concept of fining those who do not pay on time or the amount of the fine itself. She forgotten to pay on time and she suffers the consequences.... like the rest of us who also moved here form somewhere esle.