SOUTHINGTON — Town officials are again considering fines for police calls to a Birchcrest Drive group, saying the responses cost taxpayers about $10,000 over the past two years.
The ordinance review committee discussed a draft of the proposed fines at its meeting Wednesday. Despite support from some committee members, the committee chair and town attorney raised concerns that an ordinance could get the town entangled in a costly federal lawsuit.
The house is owned by KWK Birchcrest LLC, which rents it to The Bridge Family Center, a non-profit group and state Department of Children and Families contractor. Robert Koff of West Simsbury is listed as a member of KWK Birchcrest. He declined to comment for the story.
Girls live at the house until they’re placed in a permanent living situation, usually foster care.
Under the ordinance discussed Wednesday, more than 25 calls from one address in a year would result in fines of up to $250 per call. A host of calls are exempt, including medical calls, domestic violence, crimes in progress and mental health incidents.
Town Council member Victoria Triano, who is also on the ordinance committee, said she has no issue with the group home’s mission. Triano criticized the management of the group home and hoped fines would prompt change.
“We have said that from day one, no one has a problem with kids in crisis,” Triano said. “It has to do with the operational end of the facility.”
Margaret Hann, The Bridge executive director, said group home workers don’t call police unless it’s necessary. She’s been working to reduce calls and feels efforts have been effective.
“We have made incredible progress in this program,” she said.
Deputy Police Chief William Palmieri said there were 107 calls to the home last fiscal year. Thus far this fiscal year, which ends June 30, there have been 78. The most frequent calls are for girls who’ve run away from the home.
Thus far this year the calls would have cost KWK Birchcrest about $4,500, Palmieri said.
James Morelli, another committee member, compared the situation to a bar with frequent police calls. One property absorbing inordinate amounts of police time was unfair to other residents in town who infrequently use emergency services. As with a bar, Morelli said fines could prompt the landlord to require the tenant to make changes.
The excessive police calls ordinance would apply to any property in town.
Cheryl Lounsbury, ordinance committee chairwoman, said she was concerned about a lawsuit over fines.
“It could give us a real black eye publicly and secondly it could cost us a lot of money,” she said. “If I were the owner of the home, I’d be filing a lawsuit.”
Town Attorney Carolyn Futtner said she hasn’t found a similar ordinance passed by another Connecticut town. If the fines are shown to have a discriminating effect on a protected class, the town would be under scrutiny from courts.
“You have the Fair Housing Act, you have the ADA, you have all these federal laws that haven’t been tested yet,” she said. “I would hate for our town to be the one to test this and find out the hard way.”
Although the ordinance would apply to any property, “the very fact that we’re talking about this group time and time again gives me pause,” Futtner said.
While discussion started over the group home, Town Council chairman Chris Palmieri said fines for police calls could by applied against a problematic night club or any other business in town.
“It isn’t geared for one particular area,” he said.
If police are going to charge for coming to the house, Hann said Koff, the group home’s landlord, should withhold his taxes.
“He’s not going to pay those fines,” Hann said.
She questioned how people would view Southington if it were the only town in the state that passed such an ordinance. Hann didn’t think that most town residents would be in favor of fines.
“There are so many really good people in the town of Southington that have come to support us and to help us,” she said. “We’ve been overwhelmed with people who have been wonderful.”
Triano said she’d like the ordinance committee to vote on the fines at its next meeting scheduled for July 18. The issue would then go to the Town Council.