DRACUT -- Considering the state of the town's economy, now is not the time to raise fees on Dracut businesses, or impose hefty fines for multiple false alarms, selectmen decided.
The five-member board, short a member Tuesday night due to the absence of John Zimini, again postponed taking action on a proposed alarm bylaw, which Deputy police Chief David Chartrand first presented to the panel Dec. 10. As instructed by selectmen at that meeting, Chartrand returned to the board with a 12-page alarm policy, modeled after Chelmsford's, that, if passed, would impose increasing fine amounts of $50, $75, and $100 on businesses that have more than three false alarms per month.
"It's pretty comprehensive. It also sets up a permitting process whereby everyone in town who has an alarm will be registered annually," said Chartrand. "The ultimate goal is to have alarm holders maintain those systems so we don't have the extreme amount of (false) activations we have now."
From Oct. 1 to Dec. 1, Dracut police responded to 247 false alarms, according to department records.
"That's a significant number, especially considering that it's a two-cruiser response for each alarm, by policy, with lights and sirens," said Chartrand. "There's 21 square miles of land to cover -- a lot of area to traverse at an increased rate of speed. It's not only a safety concern for the officer responding, but for the people on those roads.
The proposed alarm bylaw allows for business owners to appeal fines they feel are unwarranted, Chartrand noted. Without such a policy in place, there is no real incentive for businesses to get a faulty alarm system fixed, he said.
"The feedback I got from other communities is they saw a reduction in false alarms after enacting this," Chartrand added.
Selectmen Joe DiRocco and Tony Archinski expressed hesitancy to sign onto the proposed bylaw, suggesting the proposed fines represented overkill.
"To me, this is like hitting a flea with a sledgehammer, and I don't know that we need all this," Archinski said, addressing Chartrand. "You call it a fee, I call it a tax. There are hefty fines in there, and I expect some people will say 'I pay my taxes'; the least you can do is respond when an alarm goes off."
DiRocco asked Chartrand to define "false alarm," before pointing out that motion alarms can sometimes be set off by a mouse, "in which case the alarm is working the way it was designed to," said DiRocco.
DiRocco said he'd be willing to consider some sort of fine structure for multiple false alarms after the town's attorney, Jim Hall, has a chance to review the bylaw. Chairwoman Cathy Richardson asked Hall to make his report to the board at their Feb. 11 meeting.
Also on the agenda, the board reviewed a list of fee amounts the town charges annually to local businesses in comparison to the amounts charged by surrounding towns. In some fee categories, most notably the $1,000 annual fee the town charges restaurants that serve alcohol, compared to $2,750 in Lowell and $2,500 in Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Tyngsboro and Westford, "We are strikingly low," Richardson noted.
Selectmen Richardson, DiRocco, Archinski and Bob Cox voiced a unanimous sentiment that they are opposed to raising any of the annual fee amounts paid by local businesses to the town.
"We don't want to hurt businesses any more when they're already struggling," DiRocco said.
Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal reported to the board the new Town Hall construction project is nearly on schedule, with the exception of "minor delays" caused by the extreme cold.
"The parking situation has also been a bit of a challenge," Vandal said.
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