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Willmar, Minn., City Council sets hearing Feb. 21 to repeal alarm ordinance

The Willmar City Council will have a public meeting to discuss repealing the city's alarm ordinance. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council has voted to take comments from the public Feb. 21 on a proposal to repeal the city's outdated alarm ordinance.

The vote came after Police Chief David Wyffels and Fire Chief Marv Calvin, on the advice of City Attorney Rich Ronning, recommended repeal because the ordinance is no longer useful as it does not reflect technological changes or current business practices.

After first seeking to amend the language, Wyffels and Calvin worked with Ronning on the ordinance, and the eventual recommendation for repeal was brought to the Public Works/Safety Committee on Jan. 31. The committee recommended the repeal, and full council approved setting the public hearing.

The advice to repeal was given in part because the current ordinance refers to an alarm holder's position on an alarm panel that has not even existed since 1999.

Ronning and Wyffels told the council Monday night that the ordinance, enacted in 1978, initially applied just to alarms that were hardwired into a panel owned by Willmar Electric and located in the police department at the former downtown law enforcement center.

The panel had rows of lights and each light had a number. When the light tripped off, officers looked up the alarm location, responded to the call and called the key holder to take care of the alarm if it was a false alarm.

The ordinance does not require people to get permits for alarm systems, but a permit gave the alarm owner a place on the panel. The panel ran out of room and the ordinance was amended in the 1980s to include alarms called in by individuals and alarm monitoring companies.

The panel was discontinued when the Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office moved to the new law enforcement center in 2000.

The ordinance requires payment of a penalty of $100 per false alarm for more than five false alarms in a 12-month period. Any permit holder who fails to pay the penalty would be removed from the panel, which no longer exists.

By ordinance, unpaid penalties are to be assessed against a permit holder's real estate. However, Ronning said the Supreme Court has ruled that the city has no legal basis for assessing unpaid penalties unless the city charter authorizes assessing those penalties.

And even if someone is delinquent and does not pay for false alarms, the police and fire departments still respond, said Ronning.

"If we don't respond to an alarm, the liability could be huge because it might be the real thing rather than a false alarm,'' he said.

"If you're going to return to that system in the future, the charter will have to be amended to provide for assessing the alarm owners for the fees if they do not voluntarily pay them,'' he said.

During discussion, council member Doug Reese asked if the city needs to address the issue of the number of false alarms.

Wyffels recommended a wait-and-see attitude.

"As far as the number of alarms, we'll never know the number of alarm systems in town,'' Wyffels said. "We only know the number of alarms we respond to. If you see a sharp increase, then I would say we need to revisit it. If we don't, then I wouldn't be too concerned about it and be business as usual as it is now.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150