All scales used for commercial purposes, such as selling at a farmers market, need to meet two requirements. One, they must be “legal for trade”, meaning they’re manufactured in such a way as to be reliable and inspectable/adjustable by the government. These are generally much more expensive (hundreds of dollars) than the standard cheap kitchen-type scales you can buy anywhere for home use. Two, they have to be inspected every year, and given an official sticker saying so. Until recently, this cost $5 per scale, and was conducted by a Weights & Measures inspector from the Missouri Department of Agriculture who would either come out to the place of business (like our farm) or try to do many scales at once (such as moving down the aisle at the farmers market).
We received a letter this fall that the annual scale inspection fee, for the kinds of scales market farmers use, was hereby increased from $5 to $30 (fees for scales of all sizes are going up, from little platform scales to railroad scales). I want to discuss both what this increase means for our farm business, and what it says about why people like us keep losing faith in government.
First, the impact on us. We currently have two certifiable scales that cost around $200 each. If these each have a lifespan of 10 years (could easily be more), those would have cost us an extra $50 each to keep in operation. Now it will cost us $300 each. That’s a big cost increase for a low-overhead farm like ours that is very careful with its budget. Also, we were discussing upgrading to a better platform and/or digital scale (very expensive) to make certain transactions easier and faster for customers. Now that’s off the table, because that money in our budget just got eaten by the new inspection fees. We’re grateful that we didn’t make that purchase just before finding out about the new fee structure.
Now the more complicated part. The reason given for this increase is that the division is trying to keep its fee structure on par with the cost of providing the service. That’s absolutely fair, and I applaud the concept. Certainly, the fact that an inspector might drive from Jeff City here and back for $10 worth of scale inspections isn’t the most efficient use of taxpayer money. So I don’t have a philosophical argument with raising the rates, especially since this is the sort of service governments are best suited to providing.
What bothers me is the context for doing so, and the way in which it’s being done. First of all, making the rates standard for any number of scales is silly, though it is currently required by law. Accepting for the sake of argument that $30 for the first scale is fair, why charge the second, third, etc. scale the same? It actually takes about five minutes to do the scale inspection, such that if we had four scales we’d be paying $120 for 20 minutes of work. Why not have a sliding fee structure to make the cost and time use more efficient for larger numbers of scales? Or have a surcharge for travelling to a specific lone site, while lowering the rates for very efficient settings like a farmers market, where the inspector can serve 60 farms in a couple hours? Or give us the option to take our scales into one of their offices to reduce their travel expenses and to save us money?
Second, the context for this fee increase exposes one of our core concerns about governments: that they operate in a world largely free from consequences. Let’s look at the law regarding scale inspection fees (the current wording was passed in 1994):
2. On the first day of January, 1995, and each year thereafter, the director of agriculture shall ascertain the total receipts and expenses for the testing of weighing and measuring devices referred to in subdivisions (2), (3), (4) and (5) of subsection 1 of this section and shall fix the fees or rate per hour for such weighing and measuring devices to derive revenue not more than the total cost of the operation, but such fees shall not be fixed in amounts less than the amounts contained in subdivisions (2), (3),(4) and (5) of subsection 1 of this section.
In other words, it is the legal responsibility of the Department of Agriculture to keep tabs on the budget for scale inspections, and every year adjust fees as necessary to keep their budget roughly in line. Yet since the current law was passed 15 years ago, that never once happened. As the letter itself admits:
Although the law required that the fee be adjusted periodically to cover the cost of inspections, the fee rate has not changed since 1983 for small capacity scales and 1994 for large capacity scales. Failure to adjust the inspection fee to cover the program costs was noted as a deficiency in a recent State audit report. Unfortunately, as a result the Department is now faced with cutting this valuable program or adjusting the fees accordingly to cover the costs.
And so for fifteen years, businesses were taught to base their budget on the same low fee, instead of adapting to a gradual and expected annual adjustment. Now, all of the sudden, a state audit noticed that the law wasn’t being followed, and a decision was made to rectify it through a massive fee increase. In a narrow view, good for them for finally paying attention (or rather, the State auditor’s office). But in a larger view, this exposes some real problems in the way governments work.
If we, as a private business, ignored a Missouri law for fifteen years, we could be prosecuted, fined, or even jailed. We could easily lose our business, whether directly or through the economic hit of prosecution and restitution of any unpaid fees or taxes plus a penalty (not to mention bad publicity). But when a government agency ignores its own law for fifteen+ years, nothing happens to the people who didn’t do their job; nothing happens to the agency’s budget, their powers, or their right to implement/enforce policy. The penalty for fixing their wrong simply falls on the rest of us who had nothing to do with that failure.
And this sort of thing is why people like us end up sounding anti-government. I’m not anti-government philosophically, but I too often become disgusted with government in the real world, where all too often government failures and incompetence have real and serious consequences for citizens and businesses. For private citizens, failure to know and follow the law is not an excuse. Far too often, for government agencies it’s an unpunished fact of life.
And this is one reason I’m so strongly against increased regulation of farms and food safety: because one mistake on our part could put us out of business, but a plethora of screwups by the FDA or any other agency won’t have any effect on their power to enforce or ignore the law as they see fit. And that’s simply not right.