Alex Schmall wears a black hat and a stern gaze while he goes about his job protecting Spokane consumers.
A tough demeanor is about all he’s got to make sure people get what they buy.
“I’m like a toothless dog,” Schmall says. “A lot of bark but no bite.”
As one of two employees in the city’s Weights and Measures Department, Schmall’s job is to ensure that a pound of ground beef actually weighs a pound. That a cord of firewood is a true cord. That a gallon of unleaded gasoline is a full gallon.
When Schmall finds someone slipping a boning knife onto a scale while weighing a pound of shrimp, or a taxi driver who’s changed the size of the cab’s tires to throw off the meter, there’s not much he can do.
The city doesn’t have any tickets to issue or fines to levy. A verbal slap on the wrist is usually the maximum penalty.
“I can write them a violation notice, which packs no weight,” Schmall says. “All that notice says is, ‘You guys are bad guys.”’
About the most he can do is “get loud and obnoxious and hostile and embarrass them in front of their customers,” he says.
Violations are many and varied: deli scales and gas pumps that aren’t set to zero, bags of dog food and loaves of bread that don’t weigh what labels say they do, packages of meat that have customers paying by the pound for the wrappings.
Schmall has even seen people drop a thumb on the scale to boost the price.
Schmall estimates his department saves Spokane consumers as much as $12 million a year. But, a lack of awareness, shrinking staff, a stagnant budget and aging equipment push the department to near extinction.
“There was a time this department threw some weight,” says Schmall, 51, who started there 21 years ago. At that time, four people did the job two do now, but those days are past.
Spokane isn’t alone.
“Funding for weights and measures has been cut in most cities and states across the country,” says Tom Coleman of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.
“When there are budget problems, are you going to cut schools or cut weights and measures?”
The federal government sets national guidelines but leaves it to states, cities and counties to make and enforce laws.
As the funding squeeze tightens, a department’s duties increase. Most state legislatures, including Washington’s, are telling weights and measures officials to check scanner accuracy - random testing to make sure the shelf price equals the computer price at a checkout stand.
Throughout the United States, more than $2 trillion worth of products are sold by their weight or their measure.
Most people hear the term “weights and measures” and think of cookbooks or chemistry class. Few link it to the department’s function as a grass-roots consumer protection agency.
“It was one of the country’s first two bureaucracies” along with the Treasury, Coleman says. “But people take it for granted. They have no idea how much they’re affected by it.”
Schmall explains it this way: If a store sells 2,000 packages of meat a day and each package is short 5 cents of product, that store stands to make $100 a day selling air.
“You can’t steal a lot from one person, but you steal a little bit from a lot of people,” says Ralph Jones, Schmall’s partner.
“What if they do that all year?” Schmall says. “Then you’re starting to talk about hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
But consumers rarely learn about the benefit of inspections. In last year’s city survey of residents’ priorities, no one even mentioned the two-man department.
“One of the problems with the department is its low visibility,” says City Manager Roger Crum. “One in 1,000 people know it exists.”
That hurts when budget time rolls around.
Gary Persons, the city employee relations director, took over as the department supervisor in the late 1980s when the last full-time supervisor retired.
Unlike the last supervisor, Persons doesn’t spend any time as an inspector.
Nowadays, when Schmall begs for $10,000 for new scales, the fact the department is nearly invisible to the public takes its toll. The scales remain just another item on the wish list.
“If you ask people if they want another firefighter or new scales, what do you think they’re going to say?” Persons asks.
Most of the department’s equipment is at least 20 years old. Its staff has dwindled from five people to two in the last 30 years. Its budget remains fairly flat - about $110,000 per year.
The ability to punish merchants for repeat violations disappeared in the mid-1980s during the city’s decriminalization of much of its municipal code. Back then, merchants who refused to comply could find themselves in court facing a fine or even jail.
Right now, Schmall or Jones could call on police or prosecutors to go after repeat offenders on theft charges, but “they have other, far bigger things to do,” says Larry Winner, an assistant city attorney.
Winner is drafting a system of civil fines for several things, including weights and measures violations, he says.
The fines will help, “but we’re still not going to have any more people or any new equipment,” Winner says. “The department hasn’t had enough money to do what needs to be done for a long time.”
The revised code is expected to come before the City Council next month.
Buyers aren’t the only ones who benefit from accurate scales, meters and packages. Sellers do, too.
If a scale or gas pump is inaccurate, the business could be giving its product away. If dishonest business people cheat customers, their profit margins soar while honest businesses suffer.
“A lot more protection happens for the honest business than the consumer,” says Kristie Anderson, the sole employee in Everett’s Weights and Measures office.
Robert Hansen, manager of a Spokane Excell store, says the worst thing that can happen to a business’s reputation is to get caught cheating.
One slip and “consumers think you do it all the time,” he says, adding the city’s checkup often serves as a reminder that his scales need service.
Jeff Cox of the Washington Retail Association thinks the green city stickers on scales and pumps that say “Weights and Measures” instill consumer confidence.
“Ultimately, that’s something retailers value,” Cox says.
Everett, Spokane and Seattle are the only cities in the state with their own departments of weights and measures.
Tacoma dropped its program to save money in 1994, leaving enforcement to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees Washington’s weights and measures program.
“We knew the state would take it over if we didn’t do it,” says Craig Silvey, a Tacoma administrator, adding that state officials wanted the city to keep its department because of the Washington program’s cash problems.
Outside incorporated Spokane, one state employee does all the accuracy checks for the 12 counties in Eastern Washington. Another employee is expected to start next month.
Bob Arrington, head of the state program, says constant changes in state laws and spending make it a challenge to keep his department going.
“We have a very strong business coalition here,” he says. “They don’t want to see us grow any larger.”
It takes more than two years for his employees to inspect all the scales, meters and gas pumps under state domain. “I’d love to have sufficient numbers of resources to inspect devices annually,” he says. “I don’t.”
While many places struggle to keep their weights and measures departments alive, Seattle’s is booming. The department has a $600,000 annual budget and a staff of five inspectors, two clerical personnel and one supervisor.
Two years ago, Seattle changed the department’s name to “Consumer Affairs,” a more user-friendly term. Last year, inspectors began cracking down on scanner sales.
“We found a pretty high error rate - about 15 percent,” says supervisor Craig Leisy, adding that means 15 out of 100 items rang up higher than the marked price. “Now, a year later, it’s gotten quite a bit of attention. It’s down to about 2 percent.”
Seattle’s findings have Schmall and Jones focusing on scanners in Spokane.
While past years have seen nearly annual checks of scales and taxi meters, the volume of scanners now in use means those checks won’t happen as often.
Besides monitoring package weights and gas pumps, Schmall and Jones respond to about 250 consumer complaints a year.
Esther Russell, a 77-year-old retiree who lives alone in North Spokane, called on the department a year ago. She’d paid $190 for two cords of firewood but got less than one cord.
A cord is 128 cubic feet of firewood.
“It’s my only source of heat,” says Russell, who is homebound. “It makes you feel like you don’t want to trust anybody anymore.”
Russell says the weights and measure people were “super,” but she didn’t have a receipt and there wasn’t much they could do. Attorney Winner did write the woodcutter a warning letter.
The average consumer is “getting ripped off $200 to $300 a year,” Schmall says. “And they don’t even know it’s happening to them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; Graphic: “Weighing the consequences”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BUYING ADVICE Here are a few tips to help consumers protect their wallets: A scale and its readout must be visible to consumers. Only pay for the product, not the container. Ask the grocer if the store subtracts “tare” - the weight of the package - when calculating prices. Scales or gas meters should read zero or less before something is weighed or pumped. Check the price. Many stores use electronic scanners that read the item’s price at the checkout stand. Sometimes, the scanned price and the shelf price don’t match. A cord is 128 cubic feet of firewood. Multiply the width by the height by the length to calculate the amount of wood. Home heating fuels are sold by volume or weight. Always get a “delivery ticket” that says the name and address of the buyer and seller, the delivery date, the amount and type of fuel delivered. Look for the sticker that says “Weights and Measures” to see the last time the gas pump or scale was inspected. To complain about a store within city limits, call the city Weights and Measures Department at 625-6611. For a store outside the city, call the state program at 360-902-1857. - Kristina Johnson