City, UF at odds over fire alarm ordinance
Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 11:35 p.m.
The city of Gainesville says it must pay, but the University of Florida says no way.
The university this week insisted it is exempt from the city's recently enacted false fire alarm ordinance, which requires annual permitting and fees for false calls.
In a letter sent to all UF deans, directors and department chairs on Wednesday, William Properzio, director of UF's division of Environmental Health and Safety, said the university is "not subject" to the new ordinance and instructs officials not to register or pay fines associated with the rule.
Gainesville's fire services, which include responding to actual fires and false alarms, are funded by city property taxes, which UF is exempt from paying because it is a government institution.
Ed Poppell, vice president for Finance and Administration at UF, said Friday that the university's attorneys have mulled over the ordinance for months and determined it was not a user fee. Instead, Poppell said attorneys have ruled the ordinance a tax that UF is immune to because it is a state university. University attorneys in July told city officials that UF's authority over fire safety is "exclusive" and "trumps" the city's authority to regulate in that area - including false fire alarms.
When asked how the city should subsidize the costs it incurs by responding to false fire alarms on campus if the university does not pay the fees, Poppell said that the university is "aiming to reduce false alarms through education, by reviewing the causes of alarms and addressing certain issues in certain buildings."
"We're going to go a long way in solving the problem," Poppell said.
But the city maintains that the ordinance's conditions and fees will apply throughout the city, including governmental users like UF, City Attorney Marion Radson said.
The city may take the matter to court if it is not resolved, Radson said.
"The fire services (UF) receives are paid for by the citizens of Gainesville," Radson said. "We just want them to reduce false alarms and if they bring the number of alarms below the threshold, they won't have to pay for them. The permit fee is insignificant."
UF accounted for 15 percent of the 5,600 false alarm calls in Gainesville from 2001 to 2004, according to Gainesville Fire Rescue. Just over 10 percent of the 52,847 calls received in that time period were for false alarms.
For each response to a false alarm, GFR said it costs $264 to pay for personnel costs for two fire engines, one truck company and one district chief. Additional costs are attributed to fuel, fleet replacement and 911 calls to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office Combined Communications Center, GFR reported.
That adds up to nearly $370,000 spent on false alarms each year.
Firefighters treat each call as if it were an emergency, but with the high number of false alarms, valuable time and resources are being diverted from real emergencies, GFR spokeswoman Shawna Traub said.
"We send a full complement to fire calls," Traub said. "When we respond as if it's a real emergency, we're running our lights and sirens and we put our firefighters and other drivers in harm's way by increasing the chances of an accident."
And by making fire alarm users accountable for false alarms, Traub says both residents and firefighters would be kept safe and resources could be better available to respond to true emergencies.
The ordinance-created fees include an annual permitting fee of $15 and false-alarm fees ranging from $25 to $400, which will start being assessed today. The city does not charge for the first false alarm. Charges will be levied if annual permits are not renewed, fees are not paid or operator contact information is not properly updated.
Some university towns in the state assess a monthly fire service fee to state instiutions through utility bills in order to defray the costs of false fire alarms.
For example, in Tallahassee - home to Florida State University and Florida A&M University - a separate fire assessment fee is paid by state universities, said Dennis Bailey, associate vice president for facilities at FSU. The city also has an existing false alarm ordinance in place.
Bailey said FSU paid about $650,000 for the 2004-2005 fiscal year to the city for the fire assessment fee.
Radson said UF does not pay an equivalent fee to the city.
Bailey added that he was not aware of any fees paid by FSU associated with Tallahassee's false alarm ordinance.
"We count on the city for fire service, but we've contemplated starting our own fire service in the past," Bailey said. "(Universities) have two options: you either work with the city or you start your own fire service."
Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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