by TJ Donovan,Vermont Attorney General As a teenager in the south end of Burlington, I spent summers and weekends stocking shelves, sorting bottles, and sweeping up at Longe Brothers Market. It was Longe’s owner, Phil Verkoni, who was my first mentor. I learned many life lessons at Longe’s, including the importance of “the customer is always right,” and the grace of giving back to your own community. I may be Attorney General now, but the lessons I learned at a small business have stuck with me.
Small businesses make up a significant percentage of all businesses in Vermont and employ thousands of Vermonters. In Vermont, these businesses are protected as consumers under our consumer protection laws, a unique benefit not commonly extended in other states. Like individual consumers, business consumers buy and lease services and products to operate and build their businesses. For many retailers, grocers, restauranteurs, medical offices, and the like one of these products is the credit card terminals that help customers pay for their purchases. Unfortunately, these terminals are the subject of the number one complaint from businesses received by the Attorney General’s Office Consumer Assistance Program.
Although these credit card terminals usually cost under $500, finance companies work with salesmen to sell “finance leases” for these terminals. In these leases, a small business will make monthly payments over four years for the use of a terminal. Judging from the numerous complaints from small businesses received by my office, it is not unusual for a less-than-$500 terminal to wind up costing a staggering $6,000 by the end of the lease. These leases are not cancellable, and my office has received complaints from businesses owners who closed their shops and returned the terminal, only to have their monthly payment to the finance lessor continue. The leases are often in 6-point font and it can be difficult to determine which entity to contact with concerns.
My office has a solution. We reached out to a group of legislators with a proposal: Why not pass a law capping the total amount a business consumer should have to pay for the use of one machine over the course of a lease? A multi-partisan effort – led by Rep. Jim Harrison, a Republican from North Chittenden, and Sen. Chris Pearson, a Progressive from Burlington – is currently working to shepherd a bill, H.594, S.206, through the Vermont Legislature. If passed and signed into law by the Governor, this bill will:
- Cap the cost of these leases to three times the Lessor’s cost;
- Require a reasonable font size;
- Require a glossary identifying each player mentioned;
- Prohibit a Lessor from debiting a bank account for a business personal property tax that doesn’t exist;
- Curb forum shopping.
This bill will help Vermont businesses and it will protect the business climate here in Vermont. Moreover, Vermonters should be proud to see our democracy working as it should to make their lives better: A Democratic Attorney General approached a Republican Representative and Progressive Senator who all collaborated for a multi-partisan bill that is now being thoughtfully considered, testified upon by stakeholders, and vetted in the committees of both houses in communication with the Governor’s Office.
If it becomes law, this bill will protect Vermont’s small businesses and keep more money in their pockets for investing in their businesses and communities, just like I saw at Longe’s, all those years ago.
T.J. Donovan is Vermont Attorney General. If you have a consumer complaint, call the Vermont Attorney General Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.