|Brown goes to bat for Keppel's department|
In Northampton County, the answer to that question consists of two words. John Keppel. He is the Director of the County's very small, but very busy, Department of Weights and Measures. It's his job to protect you from predatory merchants or even municipalities that overcharge for parking.
Northampton is one of only 13 counties left with its own Weights and Measures Department. Everywhere else, those functions are now performed by the state Department of Agriculture. That's a mistake, according to Keppel. Yesterday, he told Council's Finance Committee that the state simply lacks the manpower to "do the in-depth testing that we do.Once you're two blocks off Main Street, for the most part, they don't know you exist."
Get this. The state, which has only 37 inspectors, is so strapped for manpower that it actually certifies sellers and installers of scales, pumps and timing devices in use in many stores. Keppel points to the obvious conflict.
"That's like me coming into your store and saying, 'This scale or timing device is not any good. I'll sell you a new one.' It's like having the fox in the henhouse."These state delays or outright failures to inspect not only expose citizens to fraud, not just from unethical merchants, but from cities like York that was writing parking tickets with uncertified parking meters..
In Allentown, those $2 per hour parking meters actually cost $3 per hour. Because Lehigh County dropped its Weights and Measures Department, it's up to the state to certify those meters. Are they? Who knows? The state webpage is useless.
While Lehigh County relies n the state, Keppel includes parking meters in his "to do" list every year. He's doing Bethlehem this year, and said it will take three weeks.
"This is consumer protection," Executive John Brown told Council.
"That's fundamentally the service we're providing as a county. ... We could not do this at all and save a few hundred thousand dollars, but John's department pays for itself. If you talk to the business owners, they will tell you that they prefer that we do come in."In recent years, Keppel has even inspected the scales at shops that buy gold. "It helps them stay out of trouble," notes Brown.
"I want to know that I'm getting a full gallon of gas," said Peg Ferraro.
"I want to know that I'm getting a pound of lunch meat. ... It's a consumer service that we provide. The state can't even pass a budget, folks. I don't want to trust them to know that I'm getting my full measure at Wegman's"Keppel, who operates with a two-man department with two trucks was in front of Council to seek fee increases for the inspections, which have remained the same since 2008.
In response to questioning by Glenn Geissinger, he admitted that he could reduce the increases. Geissinger complained about the constant "nickel and diming" of small businesses. Keppel also argued that the small businesses could simply pass the costs along. "We are customers," said Geissinger. "That's my point. We've done that too much."
Council President John Cusick is not only opposed to the fee increases, but to the Department itself.
"I can't justify having businesses in this County pay these fees and these proposed increases when the form that you handed us says that, for the [state] Department of Agriculture, there would be no charge.... I believe this is a function that should be taken over by the state."Council will vote on the fee increases tonight.
I asked Keppel to inspect my weight scale after last night's meeting, but he told me his scales don't go that high.
Updated 10:30 am. Former Bethlehem Sealer on Importance of Weights and Measures..
At one time Allentown and Bethlehem (I don’t remember about Easton) had their own Sealers. I know because that’s what I was hired to do when I was hired by the City of Bethlehem under Mayor Gordon Mowrer in 1977.
In addition to certifying gas pumps and point of sale scales, I would certify all school health scales, scales used to weigh in wrestlers at the high schools, Lehigh and Moravian, and do package inspections. I thought package inspections, done totally randomly, were very important for consumer protection as well. For example, once I pulled 10 packages of a certain manufacturer’s pasta and weighed them all. They were off by enough (shorted) that I had to order them off the shelves. The same thing happened with styrofoam coffee cups at another store where the package claimed a certain number and there were substantially fewer cups in each. Most times packaging was within the legal tolerance, but these spot checks helped insure the consumers that it was, at least on the products I tested. Most gas pumps also met the standards, but occasionally a pump would be off and it would be shut down until the company that installed and maintained them recalibrated them. Then I would retest and certify them accurate, assuming they were. The equipment I used to do this testing had to be taken to Harrisburg to the PA Department of Agriculture annually to be certified for its accuracy. The only service that the state provided beyond that was the annual testing of the meters on home heating oil trucks. The PA Department of Agriculture had large 100 gallon testers for that service. The cities and counties did not.
I think that with the lack of resources at the state level that any action taken by Northampton County officials to undermine or eliminate the Sealer of Weights position in the county would send a very certain message to the county residents of “We don’t care about consumer protection.” I always watch for the updated seals on gas pumps. I was shocked to read in your column that the same companies who sell and maintain this equipment are being certified to inspect it. That’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse. As for the fee increases, I have no idea what fees are being charged for inspections these days. When I did it for the City the rate was $3/pump and was later increased to $5/pump. That was a very small price to pay for consumer protection, which would have cost a gas station with 10 pumps $30 (later $50) annually. It literally probably amounted to fractions of a penny for every customer, if it was even passed on. When I pump ten gallons of gas, buy a box of cereal, or purchase 2 pounds of chicken, I’d certainly like to feel that someone is looking out for my best interests and that I’m receiving what I’m paying for. The PA Department of Agriculture will not provide that protection with a staff of 37 inspectors for 67 counties. My County of Northampton will with its staff.