After Hawaii News Now investigation, governor pledges to fill inspector vacancies

Published: Feb. 15, 2012 at 7:37 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2012 at 11:55 PM HST
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Gov. Neil Abercrombie
Gov. Neil Abercrombie

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) – Gov. Neil Abercrombie has pledged to improve a staffing shortage which resulted in just one inspector left working in the field to test the accuracy of thousands of gas pumps, supermarket check-out scanners and taxi meters on Oahu.

After budget cuts and state layoffs in 2009, the state Agriculture Department lost six inspector positions in the last three years, resulting in empty offices at the measurement standards branch in Iwilei.

"I've gone, ever since the election, from department to department, and I see those empty chairs.  I see those empty offices.  I see the inspectors, the kinds of folks that you were following. Folk. Just one," Abercrombie said in an interview with Hawaii News Now Tuesday.

Abercrombie told said was happy the story pointed out the effect of budget cuts.

"This shows that there is a direct connection between public employees doing the kind of work that otherwise will not get done.  Inspections, oversight," Abercrombie said.

The Abercrombie administration is asking state lawmakers for about $323,000 a year to hire three more inspectors and a manager, positions that have been vacant since state layoffs in 2009.

"What we're hoping is that now that we've moved into a little bit more positive balance, to the degree that we have a little bit more discretion with dollars, that the legislature will help us get some of those inspectors back," Abercrombie said. "When we get two or three more inspectors, we're going to have four or five, ten times more benefits coming from that."

He said this is an example of state government employees doing "great work" with reduced resources and not enough staff.

"There were layoffs and great difficulties in the past for all kinds of economic reasons having to do with the recession. And we're coming out of that.  We haven't had to have any layoffs," Abercrombie said.

One inspector retired at the end of last year, a position that will take months to fill.  Two other inspectors are out on extended leave, so there's just one inspector in the field to assure the accuracy of thousands of gas pumps, scales, taxi meters and grocery scanners now.

The lack of inspector staffing "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. "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.

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