EXCLUSIVE: Lone state inspector must police gas pumps, grocery stores, scales and taxis
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – A Hawaii News Now investigation reveals the department charged with assuring accurate prices in Hawaii's grocery stores, gas stations and taxi cabs is woefully understaffed, with just one inspector in the field to handle thousands of commercial outlets.
After years of cutbacks, Gen Miyashiro is the only measurement standards inspector in the field on Oahu.
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There are two other inspectors' positions in the measurement standards branch of the state Department of Agriculture. But one of those inspectors retired at the end of last year, and his position won't be filled for months, while another inspector is on extended leave.
"It's a little bit difficult," Miyashiro said when asked what it's like to be the lone inspector on the job.
He is responsible for testing the accuracy of gas pumps at more than 200 gas stations on Oahu, making sure that when they charge customers for one gallon of gas, that's exactly what drivers get.
Miyashiro also has to check the accuracy of the meters on about 1,500 taxi cabs and he's charged with verifying that prices on store shelves are the same prices charged by supermarket scanners.
"People feel a little bit better about buying the product if they know that it's been checked, that it had been inspected, that it gives them their money's worth," said Miyashiro, who's been an inspector for 22 years.
He's also the only state inspector remaining to measure the accuracy of hundreds of commercial scales, such as those that weigh luggage at Honolulu International Airport, measure the quantity of seafood at fish markets and weigh produce at grocery stores.
"It's kind of a little worrisome, just like we're not doing enough to help the public get what they need from us," Miyashiro said.
Miyashiro's boss is honest about the short-staffed inspection program she oversees.
"It raises a lot of questions about whether the measuring devices are actually functioning properly and accurately," said Jeri Kahana, acting administrator of the quality assurance division at the state Agriculture Department.
She showed Hawaii News Now empty offices that used to be filled with inspectors. Just five years ago, there were eight inspectors in the division.
"We lost a total of six positions within the last two or three years," Kahana said. "There is no assurance for the consumer, because there is lack of staff."
State inspectors used to be able to routinely inspect every gas station and store once a year, randomly checking the accuracy of gas pumps, scales and price scanners.
In 2009, the last year the measurement standards branch kept statistics before it was hit with layoffs, 15 percent of stores surveyed by inspectors were found to be overcharging customers at the checkout.
"We don't have the staff to do any of these activities on a regular basis. So we have to rely on complaints," Kahana said.
That means instead of performing random inspections, the lone inspector mostly just responds to complaints.
And Kahana said the branch has not issued any citations to Oahu businesses in the last year.
That's because of "the lack of staff and support, I think. It takes a long time to do an investigation and to build your case, because it has to be able to stand up in court," she said.
"We do follow up with the companies, to ensure that corrective actions have been done. But we have not issued citations. It's more of education and making sure that companies are aware of whatever errors that have been found," Kahana added.
Kahana said the administration of former Gov. Linda Lingle made the most devastating blow to the program in 2009 with statewide layoffs during the recession.
The branch manager's office has remained empty since the man who held the position lost his job in the layoffs three years ago.
"Positions were lost through attrition and they were abolished and never restored. And I guess the emphasis, the importance of the program was in question," Kahana said.
"Our department was one of the worst hit departments. We were not able to restore any of these positions," she said, noting that the agriculture department is funded by the state's general fund and not through special funds. As a result, 74 of the department's 310 full-time employees lost their jobs in the 2009 layoffs, known as the reduction in force or RIF.
Also still empty is the office of the woman who served as the department's packaging and labeling inspector. She retired when her position was abolished in 2009.
The inspector's job was to assure products labeled Kona coffee actually had enough coffee from Kona in their ingredients or tuna that manufacturers claimed to be "Hawaiian" was actually caught in Hawaii waters. That kind of label and ingredient investigation is no longer happening because there's no staff to carry it out, Kahana said.
Shoppers were shocked when a reporter told them just one inspector is in the field now.
"I go with what's on the register. I never gave it a second thought, as far as what you just informed me of," said Dee Taniguchi-Sawyer of Moanalua, as she left a Honolulu supermarket with a cart full of groceries.
"I guess they just got to the point where they're at the end of their rope and they're cutting positions instead of making sure that the people of Hawaii are getting a fair shake," Taniguchi-Sawyer said.
Barney Robinson, owner of two Oahu Chevron stations, said he would welcome more frequent gas pump inspections.
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"Historically, what we've found is when the pumps go out of tolerance, they end up giving away the gasoline, so with the environmental concerns and the cost of fuel, we can't allow that to occur," said Robinson, who owns Nimitz Chevron and Waialae Chevron.
The agriculture department is asking state lawmakers for $323,114 per year to hire three more inspectors and one manager and outfit them with equipment and vehicles.
If legislators approve the money for the new inspectors' positions, the funds won't become available until the next fiscal year in July, Kahana said. So the new inspectors probably won't be hired until a year from now and it will take months and years to provide them on-the-job training, she said.
Entry level pay for an inspector starts at $2,283 a month with several raises after new employees pass their probation period and various training milestones.
For the time being, Gen Miyashiro will be the lone inspector doing his best to respond to complaints. "Because we're so short-staffed, when people complain out in the public, it helps us do our jobs too. It alerts the businesses that somebody is aware, somebody is watching," Miyashiro said.
People with complaints for the inspector to investigate can call 808-832-0690 or email email@example.com.
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