The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 05, 2021 1:00 am

Tipping the scales back: County has weighty job

For past several decades, city had done inspections

DEVAN FILCHAK | The Journal Gazette

Allen County residents are affected by the Department of Weights and Measures constantly, whether it's while shopping for produce or filling their vehicles' gas tanks.

The two inspectors who guarantee scales are accurate now work for the county after Weights and Measures was a Fort Wayne department for more than 70 years.

Scales used for goods and services must be certified annually. They include scales used for train cars hauling cargo and those used to ensure the shots used in high school shot put competitions are the correct weight.

“It is quite interesting and something that I think that just the average citizen takes for granted that when you walk into a grocery store that you have a weight certified that when you're buying a pound of hamburger meat, you're buying a pound,” Fort Wayne Fire Chief Eric Lahey said.

Mark McClurg, director of Weights and Measures, said the inspectors also focus on checking packaging to ensure, for example, the Stryofoam tray meat is sitting on, along with the sticker, plastic wrapping and related items, aren't included in the meat's weight.

“You only pay for what's edible,” he said.

Weights and Measures is generally a local responsibility as state law requires counties with more than 30,000 residents to have a department. State inspectors provide the service in counties with populations less than 30,000, such as neighboring Wells County.

The service can be provided by a city as long as it has more than 20,000 residents, according to state statute. But Allen County and Fort Wayne officials are not sure when – or why – it was ever a city responsibility.

“It has been, for whatever reason, something that was probably brokered – I don't know – well before my time that the city of Fort Wayne perform that function,” Allen County Commissioner Therese Brown said.

Lahey said he first looked into the department's inner workings when he hired McClurg as the new director of Weights and Measures in 2019. As a city department, the Weights and Measures director reported to the fire chief.

Officials found that city inspectors were doing all the required inspections in the city and a few outside the city, but there were gaps in the county, despite Weights and Measures being a county responsibility.

McClurg said he believes state inspectors were handling the required inspections in outlying areas such as Woodburn, similarly to how state inspectors handle small counties' inspections.

In 2019, Lahey asked the Fort Wayne City Council to add another inspector position to Weights and Measures because the department would assume the county's responsibilities. The council nixed the proposed position during budget cuts.

“The county gladly assumed responsibility for that function” on July 1, Lahey said.

It was a seamless transition, Brown said, to move the department with its two inspectors and equipment from the city to the county. The department officially switched, and its budget was approved along with the rest of the county departments in October with salaries of $51,041 and $62,651 respectively for the inspector and McClurg, the director, who also does inspections.

Journal Gazette archive stories show references to Weights and Measures being a city department dating to at least 1949.

“The origins of Weights and Measures go back to the earliest days of state and county governments to make sure that when everything was weighed or measured that it was done accurately for the end user so that the consumer did not feel cheated in their purchase,” Lahey said.

The inspectors check every scale used to sell goods or services in the county annually, reporting their work to the Division of Weights, Measures and Meteorology, which is part of the Indiana Department of Health. They then place a certification sticker on the scale.

The inspectors also respond to what McClurg calls “customer complaints,” which the department receives about once a month. Most of the complaints are about gas pumps, but McClurg said the issue is typically a misunderstanding rather than the pump's measuring component.

“We've never found anything that we believed was malicious,” he said.

The inspectors focus on annual inspections at grocery stores, pharmacies and on other indoor scales during winter, but McClurg said they will inspect new gas pumps installed during winter, regardless of weather conditions. Gas pumps account for most of the county's inspections, so McClurg said those are spread out during the warmer months.

Annual inspections for smaller businesses typically occur in the fall, McClurg said.

The two inspectors certified 18,183 commercially used weighing and measuring devices in the 2019-20 reporting year, according to the department's 2021 civil budget report.

People might notice Weights and Measures certification stickers on gas pumps. Brown said the stickers might still say it's a city department if the pump or scale hasn't been inspected since it became a county department.

Other examples of scales the department checks are those that weigh wrestlers before competitions and that weigh the amount of gold or precious metals in a piece of jewelry. The inspectors even check out the scales being used by vendors at area farmers markets. McClurg said they move along if a vendor's scale already has a valid certification sticker from the state or another county.

“It's a level playing field for everyone,” Lahey said.

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