Last year, the Alexandria consumer office won compensation of $107,357 in cash, goods and services for city residents -- nearly $28,000 more than the agency's total budget.
But this year it's a different story. Because of Reagan-style budget cutbacks, the office, once a robust city agency that tackled controversial issues, proposed tough ordinances and pursued consumer complaints with vigor, has been stripped almost bare.
The staff is down from six people to two. The coordinator of the office has been downgraded to investigator, leaving the consumer unit without a director. And the unit itself has been moved to smaller quarters.
As budget cutbacks become reality throughout government, consumer offices in Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and suburban Maryland all generally are having to get by with less money and manpower than they had last year.
Although the extent of the reductions varies, none has escaped the ax entirely. The District of Columbia consumer office has lost the last six federally paid CETA workers assigned to handle D.C. consumer complaints. Montgomery County has lost one full-timer from its consumer staff of 26. Fairfax County did not get two additional investigators it sought to cope with a growing number of consumer complaint cases. And in Prince George's County, where the County Council considered at one point slicing the consumer agency in half, the director was so discouraged by the budget-cutting trend that he resigned.
"I saw it the consumer office wasn't going anywhere fast," said Albert Wynn, who left the Prince George's directorship to enter private law practice in Upper Marlboro.
Area officials responsible for consumer program cutbacks say reductions in local government spending were necessary due to federal and state funding losses and taxpayer attitudes.
"The general feeling on the part of the people in Alexandria -- and it is the same thing we see nationally --is that they don't want government to spend as much as it has in the past," said Robert Calhoun, Alexandria's vice mayor.
As a result, local government must now set priorities, Calhoun said, and the consumer agency "didn't seem to be as high a priority item as some others like law enforcement, housing, land-use planning." Alexandria's consumer office cost taxpayers about $80,000 last year; expenses this year will be less than $50,000.
In Prince George's County, the initial recommendation for cutting the consumer staff in half was rejected in favor of a more modest reduction. "The staff now has 11 positions. We had 12 before," said Ed Sealover, an assistant to the county manager. Sealover played down the importance of the staff cut and said the consumer agency's budget was reduced only slightly, from $270,000 last year to $268,000 now.
Montgomery County's consumer office actually has a bigger budget than last year -- $890,000 now compared with $825,000 before. But the increase is to cover built-in costs such as higher Social Security payments that the county must make for employes and more expensive supplies such as postage, according to director Barbara B. Gregg. To maintain the same staff and activities as it had last year and to stay ahead of inflation, the office needed more than the $65,000 it received in additional funding, Gregg said.
Area consumers seeking help and information now are beginning to feel the bite of the cutbacks. In Fairfax County, callers get a busy signal more often than in the past, because one of the consumer office's rotary telephone lines has been disconnected.
"We are trying to be more efficient. We want to reduce the number of hours that a person spends on telephone duty, so that we free up more staff time to do written work and handle complaints," said Gloria Kornasiewicz, chief of investigations.
Consumers also have to wait longer than they did previously for their cases to be processed. Because of its smaller staff, the D.C. agency now needs an average of four weeks to dispose of a case, compared with an average of three weeks last year, according to director Herb Simmons.
Consumer advocates assessing the impact of such losses say the worst is yet to come. "They the agencies will handle things day to day but they won't be able to look at the pattern of the problems or try to attack the problems on a broad scale," said Charlotte Newton, executive director of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators (NACAA), a professional association of the officials who run consumer offices.
Nor will the agencies, with their shrinking staffs and resources, be able to continue producing the educational material and other information that consumers need to avoid costly buying mistakes, Newton said. The information needed for next year must be developed this year, but agencies generally will not have the manpower to spare on such long-term projects, she said.
Besides the local budget cuts, another reason for the squeeze is the phase-out of federally funded CETA and VISTA programs. Many CETA and VISTA workers were assigned to area consumer offices to help answer phones, handle complaints and perform other office duties. That enabled the agencies to process cases faster.
But now that the government is shedding itself of those programs, the consumer agencies have only regular staff to handle a growing number of cases. Two of the six workers in the Alexandria office last year, for instance, were paid with federal funds. Now both are gone. That loss, coupled with the city's decision to reduce the agency's regular staff, has left the consumer unit with two workers.
Before the cutbacks, the Alexandria consumer office, with the advice and encouragement of a consumer affairs commission appointed by the City Council, had established itself as an activist. It won a city ordinance requiring the posting of gasoline prices. It conducted a public hearing on buying clubs. And it handled an increasing number of cases filed by unhappy consumers -- more than 3,500 in fiscal 1980, up 139 from the year before.
Now, the office's only function probably will be complaint handling, according to Mike Adams, the consumer committee chairman. "There will not be time to even look up from the desk," Adams said.
Other consumer agencies also have had setbacks. Two years ago Fairfax County had 10 consumer investigators -- two CETA workers and eight regular staff workers. Now both CETA employes are gone, leaving Fairfax with the eight investigators. Agency director Ron Mallard asked for two additional county-paid staff positions to take up the slack, but his request was denied.
The D.C. office had six CETA workers last spring, but the last one left in June.
Arlington's consumer office also has dwindled, from the 1979 staff size of seven, including CETA workers, to the present staff of five.
When five CETA workers left the Montgomery County consumer office, director Gregg recruited some volunteers and reorganized the regular staff. But the CETA loss still has not been completely overcome, she said.
Requests for information in Montgomery County have doubled since 1978, Gregg said, from 8,000 then to 16,000 in fiscal 1981.