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'Weights and Measures' ensures numbers add up

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It was four days before the grand opening of the Price Chopper in Alexandria Bay, and the store was a flurry of activity.

Signs were going up, training sessions were being conducted and there were even fresh batches of cookies coming out of the bakery. The shelves had been stocked and everything seemed to be on track for the ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday.

But one important detail remained.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Keith A. Frantz and James A. Richmire, the director and assistant director of the Jefferson County Bureau of Weights and Measures, waded into the melee armed with a shopping cart full of toolboxes, clipboards and laptop computers.

“Oh, yeah, we live and die by shopping carts,” Mr. Frantz said, laughing.

Their mission: to check the store's scales, both commercial and customer; to check the pricing accuracy of the store's scanners, and to check the packaging of food items.

And the store can't open until after they complete their mission.

As they moved through their routine, Mr. Frantz joked to store Manager Todd E. Thompson, whom he has known for many years, that he had better learn French since the store, which is at the base of the Thousand Islands Bridge, is likely to be a hot destination for Canadian visitors from Ontario.

Mr. Thompson gamely replied, “Est-ce la viande ou de la soupe?”

Translation: “Is this meat or soup?” — a phrase Mr. Thompson apparently learned studying the language in high school, and a fitting phrase for a man who has spent the better part of 30 years managing various grocery stores and supermarkets in the area.

Mr. Thompson was visibly excited about the store's opening and proud of the new layout.

“Alex Bay deserves a store like this, you know,” he said.

There are many scales behind the gleaming new countertops of the deli, butcher, seafood and bakery departments and in the misty mountains of the produce section.

Working in tandem, Mr. Frantz and Mr. Richmire tested the accuracy of the scales by placing quarter-pound, half-pound, 1-pound and 5-pound weights on them until they reached capacity, which is usually 30 pounds, then checking each quadrant of the scales to make sure that all sides were equal.

After they completed the tests, they sealed the device with a leaden wire and a stamp individualized with a “J” for Jefferson County and a number unique to each device.

After finishing with the scales, Mr. Frantz and Mr. Richmire moved through the store's aisles, picking out 100 items at random and scanning them to make sure the pricing was accurate.

Mikael R. Pelkey, pricing accuracy coordinator at the store, anxiously awaited the results of the test.

“Scanning accuracy in any facility is a very important job. Mike takes his job very seriously,” Mr. Frantz said.

Then it was on to the packaging, which is measured to ensure that its labeling is accurate and that customers aren't being under- or overcharged. Customers are not supposed to pay for the weight of the packaging material itself.

Most residents of Jefferson County might be surprised to learn that the Bureau of Weights and Measures plays such an integral role in the opening of a grocery store, but it's just one aspect of a job that touches virtually every area of county government and business.

Every piece of meat or produce that you buy, every gallon of milk you drink, every gallon of gas you pump — all of it bears the implied stamp of approval of the bureau.

“We're into a lot of areas that people wouldn't think we'd be involved in,” Mr. Frantz said earlier this month during a rare moment of rest in the bureau's office in a forgotten corner of the Jefferson County Highway Department complex.

From that quiet nook, Mr. Frantz and Mr. Richmire deploy to stores, warehouses, gas stations, marinas and manufacturing plants to test and verify the accuracy and proper use of everything from computers to prescription and vehicle sales.

The bureau also does commodity inspections, petroleum sampling, milk tank calibration, price verification and noncommercial device testing.

“We try to get to everything once a year,” Mr. Frantz said.

They also respond to consumer complaints and maintain soft- and hard-copy records of all commercial weighing and measuring devices and inspection reports.

While some of the tools they use, such as the scanning gun at the supermarket, are technologically advanced, most of their methods are old school.

To test the accuracy of a high-flow diesel pump, for instance, Mr. Frantz uses what's called a 50-gallon “prover.”

On a chilly morning in early April, Mr. Frantz used the prover to test the diesel pumps at a Nice N Easy gas station on Route 11.

Pumping the fuel into the prover at a rate of 35 to 40 gallons per minute, Mr. Frantz discovered that the pump's calibration was 20 cubic inches over tolerance and the pump was giving out slightly less fuel than it said it was.

As he let the fuel drain back into the station's underground fuel tanks, Mr. Frantz explained that while the difference sometimes may seem like small potatoes, you have to look at the cumulative effect.

On that day, diesel fuel was $4.239 per gallon. At 50 gallons, you would pay $211.95.

And 20 cubic inches is worth about 36 cents; an inaccurate pump can rob you of that money.

“It's a lot of money, cumulatively,” Mr. Frantz said. “That's how we have to look at things.”

Since the difference was just slightly over tolerance, Mr. Frantz fixed the calibration of the scale and resealed it with his leaden wire and stamp. He then remeasured the calibration twice more before moving on to his next job. All told, the process took about an hour — a little longer than the half-hour per pump that he averages.

Mr. Frantz said that he doesn't think there is much intentional cheating in the area and that most inaccuracies are simply a result of human error.

Still, if problems are identified and not corrected within a certain amount of time, the bureau has the power to levy fines, which can be hefty.

On the first offense, the state authorizes a fine of up to $600 for a seal that has been broken or tampered with. On the second offense, a fine of up to $1,200 is authorized.

It's all part of ensuring “equity in the marketplace,” which is the bureau's objective, according to its website.

“Businesses — we're here for them as much as we are the consumer. We want all the businesses to thrive and everybody to get a fair shake,” Mr. Frantz said.

He has been with the bureau for 23 years and took over as director in 2004. It's a job he says he enjoys.

“Sometimes, when you're at a gas pump or a supermarket, and someone comes over and asks, 'What are you doing?' and I'll tell them and they'll always say, 'I always wondered whether somebody did that.' It makes you feel kind of good that somebody's out there looking out for them,” Mr. Frantz said. “What I've liked about this job over the years is that you're not always in the same place. When the weather's nice I get to be outside. I meet a lot of different people, most of them pretty good.”

But, with all his experience, Mr. Frantz said, he still can't explain why hot dogs are sold in packages of eight while hot dog buns are sold in packages of 12 — a question that has mystified countless consumers, including George Banks, played by Steve Martin in the 1991 film “Father of the Bride.”

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