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Official’s duties weighty matter

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For the past 15 years, one county employee has been ensuring that when you pump gasoline, buy meats and produce and pay for a taxi, you’re actually getting what you pay for.

Most of the time the scales, pumps and meters are calibrated and accurate. But about 6 percent of the time, the scales in grocery store registers or gasoline pumps aren’t measuring your items correctly.

Jerry Napier, the county’s weights and measures inspector, makes sure those off-balance scales and meters get fixed — even when the gas pump is giving you a little extra in your tank than you’re paying for. Between June 2012 and June 2013, Napier checked more than 5,000 pumps at gas stations, scales at stores and packaging weights for items sold by the pound, such as fresh meat.

But Napier is also making sure the scales weighing in high school wrestlers are accurate, that the meter in taxi cabs charges the correct amount for each mile and minute traveled and that you’re paying the right amount for every ounce of frozen yogurt you squirt into a cup, especially since that yogurt costs way more per ounce than gasoline, he said.

If a gas pump is off by more than 6 cubic inches — equal to about six shot glasses — the station needs to get its meter fixed. If the scale in the self-checkout line at the grocery store misses the weight of your pound of bananas by just a few hundredths of a pound, it’s taken out of operation until its re-calibrated.

Seals wear out, scales get old and computers can be set incorrectly. Generally that benefits the customer, not the business, but making sure it’s right every time is what his job is all about, Napier said.

“I usually find more pumps giving away gas or whatever else than shorting people,” Napier said. “But we’re out here for equity in the marketplace.”

Napier runs the county’s one-man weights and measures department, which is required for any county with more than 30,000 people. His department is one of the smallest funded by the county, with a budget just under $40,000 per year with almost all of that going to pay his salary.

In the 15 years since he took over the position, Napier has settled into an annual schedule so every scale and pump gets checked about the same time every year. If a gas pump was checked in June last year, he’ll be getting back to it in June this year.

That schedule doesn’t include the occasional complaint from the public or rechecks he has to do after a pump or scale fails its annual test. Last week he took a morning trip to recheck a single pump at a Greenwood gas station that was dispensing more fuel than it was supposed to.

Napier stands on the back of his work truck, pouring 5 gallons of gas into the measuring container at full flow. He slows down as the pump approaches 5 gallons, hitting the mark exactly. The reading in the small glass tube at the top of the container reads 1 cubic inch under, which is the perfect mark to hit. His equipment — the gas tanks on his truck and the sets of weights ranging from a few grams to a few pounds each — also must be checked by the state weights and measures office once every two years.

He pumps another 5 gallons of unleaded in, slowly this time and checks it again. Still perfect. Five gallons of Super fuel measures out right too, so he marks the pump with a sticker of approval, returns the gasoline back into the holding tanks and moves on to the next place.

Last year Napier, inspected 1,924 gasoline pumps, 132 of which were rejected on first inspection because they were outside the 6-cubic-inch tolerance or had worn out hoses or broken automatic shutoffs. The number of gas stations in the county has nearly doubled since he began 15 years ago, and he can spend two days testing all the pumps at a truck stop or large gas station.

“You used to have a lot of these mom and pop gas stations with three pumps. Now you have a truck stop and it’s huge. That’s an all-day job out there,” Napier said.

And the county continues to grow. Napier knows he’ll have to try to clear out a day in his schedule to fit in a new Walmart at State Road 135 when it’s eventually built and opened. Even a small candy shop that has just one scale is one more trip he adds to his inspection list.

The big box stores — Walmart, Meijer and Target — are all-day trips. Each store has about 40 different scales that need to be tested in the deli, meat counter, bakery, pharmacy and every register counter.

He’ll also go into those supermarkets and smaller grocery stores and check packaging weights. If you buy a pound of ground beef, it should actually be a pound of meat and not include the packaging. The packaging weights also account for about 2,400 of the inspections Napier did last year.

“If you go buy a steak at $9 per pound and then they’re charging you for the packaging too, that could be 18 or 20 cents or more extra,” Napier said.

Each scale has a difference tolerance, how much it can be off by, depending on what it is and how much weight it can handle. The smaller the weight, the smaller the tolerance, so a prescription scale used at a pharmacy can only be off by fractions of gram. For a scale that is new or recently repaired, that tolerance is cut in half.

The errors he finds each year are just maintenance issues, never done purposefully, he said. The pumps he inspects are tagged with a small seal, so a gas station couldn’t tamper with a meter and then change it back before the annual inspection.

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