Spokane was the first city in Washington to create a program to ensure customers got what they paid for.
But with another budget shortfall to fix, city leaders are proposing to eliminate their one-man Weights and Measures Department and let the state take over. Money for the city program isn’t included in the preliminary 2013 budget drafted by city administrators.
That could mean that Steve Parker, who has led the program for about seven years, will be City Hall’s final sealer – the person charged with assuring the public that scales, gas pumps and other devices accurately charge consumers.
“It kind of troubles me that I might be the last one since the program has been going for 106 years and servicing both businesses and consumers quite well,” said Parker, who has been warned that the program may not even last through the end of the year. “It’s scary to think what might happen to consumers when the program goes away.”
If the city eliminates its oversight of gas pumps, scales, taxi meters and price scanners, most of those duties would revert to the state, though state officials say service levels would drop dramatically.
Jan Quintrall, Spokane’s director of business and developer services, said she did not include Weights and Measures in her preliminary 2013 budget as a “matter of priorities.”
Mayor David Condon announced earlier this year that he will have to cut up to $10 million from current city services to balance the 2013 budget. Cutting Weights and Measures would save about $60,000.
“Is it more important to have better public safety or make sure I’m not paying 3 cents more for meat?” Quintrall said. “I need to run this division like a business, and that’s a business decision that’s very easy.”
But supporters of the Weights and Measures say even a small error that cheats customers out of 3 cents on a package of meat can quickly add up to thousands of dollars or more that customers overpay over time, especially if the scale is heavily used – and especially if the scale isn’t checked for three years – the length of time between scale checks conducted by the state. They also say that eliminating the program hurts honest businesses if they face unscrupulous competitors.
Jerry Buendel, the state Weights and Measures program manager, said if Spokane turns over Weights and Measures duties to the state, Spokane city residents will experience a “distinct decline” in consumer protection.
“The oversight would be diluted significantly,” Buendel said.
Parker, Spokane’s sealer, checks all regular grade gas pumps and scales annually. He randomly checks packages of commodities – usually packages of meat or cheese to make sure packaging isn’t included when weighing to determine price. He makes sure taxi meters are measuring the correct distance when charging patrons, and he conducts a dozen or so checks of price scanners in retail stores by picking out 100 items and making sure all items’ prices register correctly. More than half of the tests he did last year on price scanners failed.
The state’s goal is to check 85 percent of gas pumps and scales once every three years, Buendel said. The state also conducts no weight or pricing checks on commodities like packages of deli items and gave up checking the accuracy of price scanners in retail stores during recent budget cuts.
If a consumer complains that a store has significant problems with a price scanner, Buendel said, the state files a report but doesn’t otherwise respond. He said he’s not sure if police departments would bother enforcing price scanner laws even though the state no longer does.
Buendel said the state has 13 inspectors that handle all of Washington except Spokane and Seattle. The program would not hire another worker if it takes on Spokane’s duties.
Spokane City Councilman Jon Snyder said the state is in “no condition to be taking over” the city’s consumer protection services.
“I don’t feel good about the possibility of people in Spokane getting overcharged for gas,” Snyder said. “That concerns me.”
But Councilman Mike Allen said with another in a long line of deficits facing the city, something has to give.
He added that he’s unaware of any studies showing that consumers would be significantly impacted if gas pumps were checked once every three years as opposed to annually, as all regular-grade pumps in the city are currently.
“It’s a duplicative function of the state,” Allen said.
Don Onwiler, the executive director of the National Conference of Weights and Measures, said state and local weights and measures programs have been gutted during the recent economic downturn.
“Everybody takes for granted that they’re being protected,” Onwiler said. “My fear is that the funding will come back only after the marketplace reaches such a deteriorated state.”
Kurt Floren, director of Weights and Measures of Los Angeles County, said there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence showing the importance of regular inspections. He said that in the early 1990s, his county’s inspections of retail store price scanners were irregular. At the time, overcharges accounted for about 8 percent of items run through price scanners. Now most stores are tested annually and overcharges account for about 1 percent, said Floren, who is the chairman of the National Conference of Weights and Measures.
He added that compliance rates have improved in recent years for scales and gas pumps throughout California after funding levels improved, allowing counties to inspect more regularly.
Condon said he’s empowered his division leaders to craft budget proposals and hasn’t yet been briefed about cutting weights and measures.
But he noted that state inspectors already handle weights and measures activities for Spokane Valley, unincorporated Spokane County and everywhere else in Eastern Washington.
“Is it causing people to shop differently and do their activity differently whether the store they are going to is in the county or the city?” Condon said. “Those are some of the questions I will be asking.”