The Prince William County Board of Supervisors, in a move supported by the county's Chamber of Commerce, has voted to hold a hearing on repealing the ordinance that created a county consumer affairs office.
On one side are those who argue that the free market provides adequate protection for the consumer and that the county office is an unnecessary luxury.
On the other are consumer groups, who say the office has done an effective job and call the move to abolish it a step backwards.
The hearings will be held on June 28, following a board of supervisors vote in early May to take another look at the ordinance. That vote was to adopt a resolution by Supervisor Andrew J.Donnelly, who favors abolishing the agency but says he doesn't know whether the votes are there to do so.
Donnelly said he proposed abolishing the consumer affairs office, and the county's public information office, for both fiscal and philosophical resons.
"I'm convinced that our tax base is not expanding fast enough to permit us to provide services over and above what you might consider mandated services, such as education and police and fire protection," he said.
Social and recreational expenditures have grown from about 2 per cent of the county budget (excluding schools) in fiscal 1968, to about 25 per cent in the budget for the fiscal year now ending, said Donnelly. "With an eye toward this, I carefully scrutinized certain activities within the budget I feel citizens of the county can live without," he said.
Supporters of the consumer affairs office are skeptical of the financial arguments. "We have a staff of three people and a budget for next fiscal year of about $52,000. That's considerably less than 1 per cent of the total county budget of $90 million," said Peter Drymalski, director of the office.
"We calculate that if you own a home worth $50,000, your total yearly tax going to the office of consumer affairs comes to about $1.28," he said.
"What I'm trying to accomplish is nothing more than setting a trend," said Donnelly.
Donnelly's other reason for abolishing the office is "I feel that it is basically unnecessary," he said. "The volunteer consumer movement is fine," said Donnelly, who said he is not anticonsumer. "I object to the use of taxpayers money to place the government in the role of mediator between consumer and business persons . . . there are practical limitations on our system of government.
Donnelly has found support for that view in the local business community.
"The business community has a responsibility, and I think we do try to look after our own store," said Laurence Randall, a Lorton business in the concrete business. Randall associated himself with a Chamber of Commerce position against the office of consumer affairs.
"Perhaps I'm naive enough to still believe in the system - that an unscrupulous enterprise won't survive," he said. "The cost of ferreting these things out by government is counterproductive. The market itself through word of mouth and other means takes care of the minority of business that take advantage."
"People have a tendency to police their own community, in that if we have unscrupulous merchants and the words gets around, people will boycott that business," said Woodbridge business Richard Sanborn. "I think consumer affairs offices are nice to have but not necessary."
On the other hand, Sophie Young, of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, said her group has "an enormous list of people the office of consumer affairs has helped." Abolishing it would had such wonderful results and services," she said.
In three years in operation the office claims responsibility for $67.540 voluntarily refunded to customers.Of about 3.500 requests for assistance a year, said Drymalski, they investigate and mediate about 400 cases.
Drymalski pointed to a recent case as an example of the type of aid the office provides that is not otherwise available. The office investigated and provided the basis for an investigation by the commonwealth attorney's office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) of a freezer meat company which pleaded guilty to false advertising.
In some cases customers had gotten something other than what they believed they were buying but didn't know it. "Unless you're an expert in what you're buying , it's easy for you to be taken advantage of and not have any idea," he said. "It's impossible to protect yourself."
Drymalski said that his office could provide expertise or bring in the appropriate agency. What the office does is not duplication of services, though, he said. In the meat case, USDA only got involved "after we provide a list of witnesses and complaints," he said.