Thursday, June 16, 2016

Who Makes Sure That Gas Station Pump Is Right?

Brown goes to bat for Keppel's department
When you fill your tank with ten gallons of gas, how do you know you're really getting ten gallons? Is the gas station ripping you off? Or how about when you order lunch meat at the deli? Are you getting a pound of balogna or baloney? When you plug a meter for an hour's worth of parking, how can you be sure that you get it?

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.


Anonymous said...

"We simply can pass the costs on". Another typical bureaucratic answer to the public from a person who doesn't want to lose his job. The simple point to this argument is whether this is cost effective and a cost benefit. But the simpletons on council do not know how to do this! Once again the public will pay for it one way or another.

Anonymous said...

Cusick and gang need to get more in touch with society and their constituents. I rather the passed on fee to make sure the Weights and Measures department does their job properly, than pay an user fee for vehicle registration. The fee for Weights and Measures will go directly where needed. We don't need more bureaucracy with the State stepping in. And if there is a tax in place to fix our roads and bridges: 1-why do we need another fee/tax. 2- Why aren't our elected officials fighting the State to either get a bigger chunk of these monies to fix our roads and bridges and/or why aren't these monies being applied properly to the infrastructure? Instead of coming down from Williams Twsp to the Courthouse, he should come from the Palmer Twsp side through Wilson and Easton and take a real look at and feel of the infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

Don't nickel and dime small business but please nickel and dime the average taxpayer. Ah the sound of the teabagger siren. Brought to you by the Chamber of Commerce an arm of the Republican Party.

Anonymous said...

A JOHN BROWN SIGHTING! Becoming more rare in the county than a good hair day for Trump.

Local said...

Yes, and who sees to the accuracy of parking meters?

Anonymous said...

If you depend on govt on any level to protect you from scams like this or terrorists, you are a fool. lets talk about the big tax on soda scam the dirt bags in Philly just pulled. we were told the cash was to be used for early childhood education. Today we find the cash is being used for the failing pension system that is insolvent , a general fund to be used as needed..aka wam money, and to pay for unions workers benefits. funny how none of that came up in the pro tax tv ads....disgusting pos politicians
so once again...who protected the people from this scam? crickets..does anybody watch out for the people when the govt is scamming them ? if this was a private business and they pulled this crap , they would be in jail or at least in front of the same scam artists who pulled this stunt to discuss the matter all for photo ops of course...

Anonymous said...

W&M had calibrated City meters for a fee at one time. Had to be in the Parking Authority budget. Maybe W&M still does it or the city contracted it out elsewhere.