BURSNVILLE, Minn. — So much depends upon the scale in your local supermarket checkout lane.

A poorly calibrated scale might, for example, tell you that bag of produce weighs and costs more than it actually does. Or it could register a lower weight and cost, shaving a few cents off your grocery bill at your grocer's expense.

Consider the number of transactions your local grocery store handles each day and the cumulative cost of misplacing cents becomes clear.

Fortunately, there's a team of people in Minnesota whose responsibility it is to inspect those and numerous other instruments.

Trouble is, the agency they work for is strapped for cash due to COVID-19. To stabilize their finances, they've asked the Minnesota Legislature for $1.5 million, or roughly 41% of their annual revenue, from the state general fund.

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"We're really hopeful that we can get the funding through so that we are able to continue those services," Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold said.

The request underscores what officials say is an increasingly unstable source of revenue for the department's Weights and Measures Division. The division, which also inspects gas station pumps and performs fuel quality checks, is funded primarily by a $1 fee charged to fuel distributors for every 1,000 gallons of petroleum they receive.

Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold
Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Grace Arnold

Eighty-nine cents out of every dollar goes to the division, which is anticipating an $800,000 decrease in fee collections this fiscal year. That owes to a depressed level of motor travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to Arnold.

Standing in a fluorescent-lit laboratory at the division's Burnsville headquarters one recent afternoon, Valare Falkner said it also threatens to delay the replacement of decades-old equipment used to screen fuel samples.

Save for three or four instruments, "almost everything in here is at or past its expected life," Falkner, the division's deputy director said.

The less equipment the lab has, the fewer tests that can be conducted, according to Falkner. And fuel samples the lab can't get to in time may then have to be sent to private labs that charge $150 to $200 per test, she said, "which isn't really feasible either for us."

If budget cuts were made, according to department spokesperson Mo Schriner, the division's field inspectors might also have to extend the amount of time that an given scale goes uncalibrated. They currently aim to inspect lightweight scales, such as the ones at the grocery store, at least once every two years, with industrial and agricultural scales receiving check-ups every year and a half to two years.

The dip in fee collections also raises questions about the fee's long-term viability given the gradual adoption of electric and more fuel-efficient cars, not that electrification has gone unnoticed in the world of weights and measures. The National Institute for Standards and Technology, the federal agency to which state weights and measures offices conform, already has plans to adopt official inspection methods for electric car charging stations.

At least for now, the department appears focused on securing a more stable source of funding for next fiscal year from the state general fund.

"If we can solve it for this session," Arnold said, then electrification will be "something that we can think more about in the long term."