Above a chilled tray of pork chorizo, Seth Birenbaum set another cast iron weight on a grocery scale and scrutinized its digital control panel. The weights equaled precisely 15 pounds but the panel showed nearly an ounce less.
“That’s out of tolerance,” Birenbaum said, walking to the nearest store clerk. “This one, it’s weighing light so you’re losing money on it. You need to get it re-calibrated.”
The difference, tiny to the untrained eye, meant the scale failed to meet industry standards and the store was getting shorted in each sale. Patrons unknowingly saved pennies per sausage and quarters on artisan meats and cheeses.
The clerk thanked Birenbaum, a county-paid inspector whose job is like a sports referee in the marketplace. He calls out when consumers and businesses are being short-changed with false advertising or incorrect measurements.
But only nine inspectors check gas station pumps, retail barcode scanners, grocery scales and other devices in Orange County. That’s the same number as 26 years ago, despite the area’s explosive growth. Routine inspections often go ignored here because the local office receives little funding compared with other counties.
“We’re busy,” Birenbaum said. “We’re always busy.”
The grocery store didn’t ask Birenbaum to check the honesty of its scale. His visit was an unannounced routine check, which happens far less here than much of the state. Many of the county’s 145,000 registered measuring devices get overlooked each year because of budget and staffing levels.
The Register reached those findings by analyzing four years of county-level inspection and spending data from the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The department oversees the inspections of measuring devices and compiles data from counties for statutorily required reports. The Register’s analysis and interviews showed:
• On average, Orange County inspects about 26 percent of businesses using price scanners – a rate below the county’s internal goals and below the rates of most large counties. About 63 percent of businesses statewide are inspected annually for price accuracy.
• Gas station pumps are inspected for accuracy less often in Orange County than elsewhere. While Orange County typically checks about half of its 700 stations annually, inspectors in other large counties check every station once and some stations multiple times.
• Orange County inspects taxi, ambulance and other vehicle meters more often than other large counties, because local regulatory agencies require annual inspections. Orange County lags in many other device categories where inspection frequency is more discretionary.
• Money drives the differences. Orange County spends far less per capita to inspect its machines than any other county in the state. About $16,000 per 10,000 residents funds the inspections here compared to about $42,000 per capita statewide.
Officials have historically justified inspecting gas pumps, grocery scales and other machines less often here because the county receives few consumer complaints and finds good compliance rates. Despite fewer inspections the vast majority of devices are still found to meet industry standards – about 19 in every 20.
It’s unknown how much those few bad devices are costing consumers and businesses each year. County officials don’t track that level of detail.
Consumers get hit
What is clear, though, is that consumers are far more likely to be on the losing side. In four years of price check inspections reviewed by the Register, the county logged about 1,400 cases where consumers were charged differently than the advertised amount – and 75 percent of those cases were overcharges.
The Register’s analysis found at least one indicator of broad problems, too. Among the state’s 10 largest counties, Orange County inspectors have logged the highest rate of violations at gas stations for false advertising, improper labeling or poor gas quality. For every five inspections, about two notices of violation were written.
Given that information, county officials and business advocates said it may be time to revisit how often Orange County monitors the accuracy of devices that consumers trust to be honest and competitive businesses rely on to be fair. Consumer advocates also urged greater oversight.
Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Consumer Watchdog, was stunned to learn of the gaps between Orange County and the rest of the state. He urged state lawmakers to investigate and county officials to reevaluate their budget priorities.
The county has historically set aside less than $1.6 million of its $3 billion annual operating budget for weights and measures inspections, not including overhead costs.
“Orange County has a reputation for being laissez-faire but this is an egregious abuse of the duty that the public has entrusted them with,” Court said. “Cheaters have a way of knowing when there are no cops on the beat.”
Court and business advocates disagree whether doing more inspections would result in a fairer marketplace. Lucy Dunn, head of the Orange County Business Council, said over-enforcement would risk impeding economic growth and job creation.
“Just because you increase the inspections does not necessarily mean you increase the number of catches,” she said. “The whole system shouldn’t be revamped because of one alleged hole in the dyke.”
Some neglected devices have cost Orange County businesses thousands though. Birenbaum said he once found a gas station pump that spit out a gallon and a half more than was shown on the meter. The station’s owners knew they were losing money but weren’t sure why.
“They thought someone was stealing from them,” Birenbaum said. “They were giving it away.”
The county’s inspections are overseen by Mike Bennett, agricultural commissioner and sealer of weights and measures. Bennett said he would like to boost staffing levels, the number of inspections and stagnant inspector wages, but it would be hard to convince the elected Board of Supervisors.
“It’s a borderline nightmare scenario,” said Bennett, who the supervisors appointed last year. “I’ve seen other people go in without their ducks in a row and get their heads chopped off.”
Bennett said expanding the program would require hiking fees paid by business owners or drawing more funds from the county’s operational budget – both of which the supervisors have been reluctant to entertain following the economic recession and budget cuts.
In November last year, the county’s health department requested more funding so it could continue inspecting restaurants and other food establishments at least twice a year. The supervisors rejected the proposal 4-1, downplaying concerns about greater risk to consumer safety.
“They really don’t want people over-regulating local businesses,” Bennett said. “We have been operating at this very basic level of minimum standards for decades, and I would like to see it increase, but in order to increase our presence we’d have to get the funding.”
Still, Bennett added, “Maybe at some point it’s my job to lobby for that.”
The Register requested interviews with the county’s five supervisors for this story but none responded. Two former supervisors, Pat Bates and John Moorlach, said the board has historically resisted increasing fees or inspections without evidence to back up the greater scrutiny.
Moorlach, the sole supporter last year to increase fees for restaurant inspections, said he once advised Bennett to prepare a data-driven case if he wanted to propose more inspections, but the idea never gained traction.
“I don’t think I told him to pound sand. I think I told him good luck with getting the other two votes,” Moorlach said. “It’s up to Mr. Bennett to make that argument.”
A preliminary proposal to increase weights and measure fees landed on the board’s agenda in November at the same time as the restaurant vote. But it was tabled for three months and then withdrawn, minutes show. A staff memo said fees were last updated in 2007 and the number of registered devices in the county has grown by 46 percent in the past decade.
Nick Berardino, head of the employee union that represents the county’s inspectors, said he would support boosting annual device registration fees that business owners pay. Orange County’s fees are currently some of the lowest in the state, weights and measures officials said.
The county keeps track of its inspections with a computer program that can help pinpoint a pattern of violations and allow supervisors to quickly answer a business owner’s questions while inspectors are in the field.
But Jeff Croy, a supervisor in the weights and measures office, said the program was designed in-house to cut costs and is now due for a major upgrade. It can’t perform some basic tasks, such as print a to-do list of inspections and share data with other programs, or complete more sophisticated tasks like track overall performance. The office does not routinely track its compliance with internal goals and state laws.
Croy said he believes the office operates efficiently but even minor changes in staffing – vacations, retirements and vacant positions – can significantly disrupt its ability to conduct inspections. In recent weeks, for example, part of Birenbaum’s time has been devoted to training a newly hired inspector.
“Literally, one employee leaves and we’re hurting,” Croy said. “It’s amazing what these inspectors do and I’m very proud of them.”
Croy said he started working in the weights and measures office in 1989. Though Orange County’s population has grown by 25 percent since then, Croy said the number of inspectors has stayed the same.
Birenbaum said the number of inspectors makes it difficult for the county to investigate possible cheats through undercover operations as well. Business owners know each of the nine inspectors’ faces since they split routine check-up duties.
“Priorities shift very quickly when there’s only nine inspectors,” Birenbaum said. “I inspect recyclers once a year. Or I should say, I try to inspect them once a year.”
Contact the writer: [email protected] or on Twitter @keegankyle