Written by: Cara Matthews

A new Putnam law that permits retailers to avoid manual pricing of all goods by obtaining a waiver has some businesses upset because they would have to pay the county up to $15,000 a year in exchange.

That’s how much a store with at least 60,001 square feet of space would be charged, higher than fees in the county’s Lower Hudson Valley neighbors. In Westchester, the fee for stores between 30,001 and 90,000 square feet is $5,000, and $15,000 for more than 90,000 square feet. In Rockland, stores of at least 30,001 square feet pay $7,500 for the annual waiver. The law applies to stores like CVS, The Home Depot, ShopRite and Wallauer’s Design Center.

Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, wrote in a letter to Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell this week that the new law — an amendment to the existing county law that requires manual pricing of goods — “amounts to a hidden tax on job creators in our county.”

“Many of our largest employers have contacted my office fearing this increase will force them to relocate to other areas outside of Putnam or even outside of the State,” he wrote. “Retailers have stated plainly that this tax will simply take Putnam County off the list as an option for future retailers.”

Odell said her administration would continue to have discussions with the affected parties and is open to reducing the fees.

“Let’s look at the fee structure, and if everyone can agree that lowering the fees can get us to a good place and get this fee structure to be fair, I would recommend that,” she said.

Odell said she hopes to reach an agreement by the end of March. The County Legislature would have to amend the law.

Putnam’s item-pricing law was outdated and didn’t take into account the “leaps of technology” that have occurred since its adoption, said Jean Marie Noel, director of consumer affairs since April. It didn’t let businesses use scanning technology and save labor costs involved in stamping each product, she said.

Noel emphasized that participation in the waiver program is voluntary. Roughly 200 Putnam retailers are subject to the law. “This is about choice and trying to reduce costs and not go in and put onerous fines on businesses and individuals,” she said.

In Westchester, 110 pricing waivers were in effect as of Feb. 1, with 22 additional requests pending before the Department of ConsumerProtection, said John Gaccione, acting director of consumer protection. A call to the Rockland Office of Consumer Protection was not immediately returned Thursday.

Putnam Legislator Dini LoBue, R-Mahopac, said the law is anti-business. She and Roger Gross, R-Southeast, were the two “no” votes on the nine-member Legislature in November. The county budget anticipates $125,000 in revenue from the item-pricing law this year.

“For the county executive to suggest that this legislation would serve as an income stream further demonstrates to me her inability to fully comprehend the financial reality facing our business community in Putnam,” LoBue said.

County Legislature Chairman Richard Othmer, R-Kent, said the item-pricing law had not been enforced for years before it was amended. There were retailers that didn’t have stickers on their goods, he said.

“By law, everybody’s supposed to put a price on every item they sell, so that can become very labor intensive, and that’s for consumer protection,” he said.

The county has to enforce the law, Othmer said. “The pricing is open to negotiations,” he said.

Supermarkets were the first retailers to look into using bar codes and scanners in the 1970s, said Michael Rosen, senior vice president of the supermarket trade group Food Industry Alliance. Laws requiring manual pricing of products were enacted around that time because there was a fear scanners would be inaccurate, he said.

The state had an item-pricing law that was allowed to lapse, Rosen said. New York enacted a pricing-accuracy law in 2006 that set standards for ensuring that the price of goods on the shelf is the same as what consumers pay at checkout.

That law didn’t pre-empt local laws that were in effect in 10 or 15 counties, including Putnam, Rosen said. Those counties have been amending their laws to enact their own versions of the pricing-accuracy law. The $15,000 waiver fee in Putnam is high, he said.

To be eligible for a waiver, retailers have 98 percent accuracy or higher in two tests of whether scanner prices match shelf labels and advertised prices in a sample of goods.

Except in the smallest stores, businesses with waivers have to provide scanners for customers.

DeCicco’s supermarket in Southeast will continue with the item-pricing system, said Chris DeCicco, one of the owners of the family-owned upscale grocery store chain. It may consider applying for a waiver in the future.

“I think just for the convenience of consumers we decided just to continue pricing individual items,” he said.

Pauline Anzalone, 61, of Brookfield, Conn., said she doesn’t like scanners because stores often don’t have enough of them.

She likes DeCicco’s and wouldn’t want to have to spend extra time searching for a scanner to find a price.

“I want to go in, get what I want and see the price right on there,” she said while shopping Thursday. (ARTICLE)

About Greg Ball

Assemblyman Greg Ball (R, C, I – Patterson) is the Senator for New York State's 40th district. A former Vice President of Exceed International Development Corporation, Ball holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the United States Air Force Academy, is currently completing his Masters Thesis of Liberal Studies in International Affairs at Georgetown University, and received an honorable discharge in 2005 at the rank of Captain after service as an active duty officer in the United States Air Force. View all posts by Greg Ball →
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