The Burglar Bar Issue That Got Overlooked

It’s tragic. A person dies in a house fire because they couldn’t get out the window that had intractable burglar bars on it. The newspaper is all over it. I wait for this story to pop up someone in Texas ever so often, at least once every 5-10 years. I’ve written about an aspect of this story several times over the years.

The public is outraged. Elected officials go on high alert. Got to do something. And fast. Between the event and literally the next council meeting a good MPA student intern can research, find and adapt an ordinance from another city in days to meet the agenda deadline. Standard operating procedure – make it illegal to have intractable burglar bars. Require a permit. And inspect to make sure it is installed properly.

Done! Leadership in action. Conscience cleared. Maybe even an attaboy or attagirl from the public and press.

Hold on a second. You blew past the part that always concerns me. When budget time rolls around and there is a request for more inspectors to monitor and enforce the program created on a few pages of an ordinance, what is going to be the response from the governing body? The Tea Party will be there to say, OMG here comes some more bloated bureaucracy. You, reckless council, YOU must be ‘fer Big Gov-ment. What unpatriotic scum you are!

Why do public safety, public works and other staffers usually sit in attendance at council meetings even if they have nothing on the agenda? It is to watch out for well meaning initiatives to come from the elected body that is going to cost a ton of money and place a big workload on them. Oh, it is not the workload. It is the expectations that everything can be done without additional resources.

It is possible that they have worried about burglar bars way before it blew up in a newspaper story. Yes. They worry all the time about loss of life and property that could have been prevented. And themselves being thrown under the bus by the council or public wanting to find someone to blame. But they think it through. Who is going to pay for the purchase and installation of a higher quality, escape-capable set of burglar bars on, say 8-15 windows per house? When installed, how much time is it going to take to check that they work? Do you leave it at that or make sure that every house member knows how to use the release mechanisms?

And what about the ongoing monitoring? If this particular house in question had internal breakaway burglar bars installed 20 years ago, what would be their condition today? Rusty or weathered non-functioning burglar bars today would be the same as no burglar bars. Not to mention repairs required after an inspection means a re-inspection.

To just play with numbers, if the City of Dallas has a population of 1.3 million people at 3 per household, that would be 433,333 living units. Many of those are multi-family, but let’s just say there are only 2.5% with burglar bars. That would be over 10,000 potential units with burglar bars. Or 70,000 windows averaging 7 windows per unit. Pick your own numbers. I’m trying trying to push people to think through the practical realities of potentially huge workloads produced by few words in an ordinance.

At 2 minutes per window and an 1,800 hour work year for a standard employee, that would be just under 40 employees needed to do annual inspections. At a full-loaded cost of $50,000 per year, that’s a potential $2 million of new costs. Yes, I know. I could cut that in half by reducing the frequency of the inspections. I could also triple it if the real time spent is 6 minutes per window due to getting to the actual window to inspect, fighting off the pitbull in the backyard and dealing with a Tea Party property rights tenant or occupant who wants to shoot anybody not invited to stand on their front porch.

Argue with my numbers if you want, but please don’t miss my point. Was there any kind of fiscal analysis done? Or did a current council not want to know? Do-gooders love to spend money the next council has to raise. By the way, $2,000,000 of costs divided by 10,000 living units would be $200 per year. Anybody going to pay those levels of fees? Nope! Coming out of taxes.

Also, what is the administrative and billing mechanism that is going to be required to keep track of all this? Who is going to make anybody take out a permit or to go after somebody who didn’t pay? Take a look at unpaid traffic fines, ambulance billings and high-weed mowing liens! There is an entire cottage industry of lawyers we have created billing for things almost impossible to collect.

Not to mention the risk factor. Is there a potential lawsuit when the city requires a permit and an inspection – and then lets something slip through the cracks? Do you really think 10,000 houses with burglar bars are going to be added to a staff’s workload and nothing fall through the cracks? A few years go by, and a fire-related death is due to burglar bars that were not inspected – or at least a record can’t be found. Now get ready to write the really big check that comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets.

Here’s the deal. Call in key city officials and use the burglar bar example to set the stage for the meeting. And then ask this question: how many potentially similar “burglar bar” events do you think about every day that might occur once every year or two? They WILL eventually happen over a decade, perhaps. What keeps you awake at night? Where are we exposed and won’t realize it until the news media makes us look like uncaring, reckless city workers?

You will be disturbed by the answer. You will not rest well for many days. I promise.

Or another way to put this particular issue into perspective, how many burglar bar fire related deaths have there been for these 10,000 living units over the past decade? Things do happen. We have had 100-year floods three years in a row. There will be spikes in the crime rate that has little to do with anything the police department controls.

I fully understand the “value of just one life” issue. But even if the levels of government services were raised many rungs higher than exist now, would we be able to eliminate all deaths in all circumstances where they might be classified as “preventable?” Absolutely not.

I just get tired of the news media that go out of their way to stick the ugliest of the uglies in our faces and then don’t stand ready to support paying for the most effective and efficient ways those issues can be addressed. Governments can always improve at least a little in the way they provide services to do more with less – the mantra at just about every conference I have ever attended in my career. But there comes a time when you have to pay more to get more. Or agree that you are willing to do without and risk the consequences.

Or let me turn this around in a way we can discuss this as intelligently as possible. Spend not a penny more in total, but for every $million you add, decide where you are going to subtract a $million in services elsewhere. You. Meaning the news media. You. Meaning the Tea Party. You are a big talker with no skin in the game. LFM


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