The Better Business Bureau system has voted to allow bureaus to charge for their services for the first time in 84 years.
During more than a month of mail-in balloting that ended Monday, members of the system voted 511 to 399 in favor of a proposal to allow the 137 Better Business Bureaus in the U.S. to charge for their business reports and customer dispute resolution service.
The proposal, the result of years of debate, was narrowly rejected by the bureaus themselves by a vote of 323 to 290.
But the proposal was overwhelmingly supported by the system's members--including some of the nation's largest corporations--and by its board.
The national Council of Better Business Bureaus, based in Arlington, Va., must now draw up specific rules governing how and when the fees can be imposed. The rules must be adopted no later than the end of the year.
Proponents of the fee-for-service idea say it will provide much-needed revenue for the nonprofit bureaus, enabling them to improve their service by adding staff and equipment, and increase their hours of operation.
"I think the important thing is to have the resources to provide quality service to whoever is calling you," said Barbara Berger Opotowsky, president of the New York City bureau.
Since 1991, 12 bureaus, including the one in Los Angeles, have been testing the fee-for-service concept.
Opotowsky said callers to the New York bureau's 900 telephone number are charged either 95 cents a minute for an average four-minute call or a flat $3.80 billed to a credit card. The fees generate about $300,000 annually, roughly 10% of the bureau's annual budget, and have enabled the bureau to make a variety of improvements, including adding 10 employees, Opotowsky said.
Nationally, bureaus participating in the test have collected $3.5 million in fees, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
Opponents of the move say that charging fees will discourage the public from calling, especially poor and elderly people, who are the ones most often victimized by unscrupulous businesses.
They cite a council study last fall that showed an average 14% decline in the number of inquiries to nine of the bureaus participating in the fee-for-service test. That decline has since reversed itself in some instances, according to council spokeswoman Holly Cherico. There was no decline in the number of requests for complaint resolution.
Critics also say the very concept behind the Better Business Bureau--business policing itself--dictates that the services should be paid for by the member business and not by the public, which the bureau system relies on for information.
"I think it's bad for the public any time we put a barrier to their using Better Business Bureau service. Unfortunately, some bureaus are willing to accept that reduced contact," said John V. Myers, who heads the Memphis bureau, which covers portions of Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. Myers, whose bureau voted against the proposal, lobbied heavily for bureaus to reject the idea.
Under the proposal adopted this week, bureaus will be allowed to impose a fee only if they provide "value-added" service. Exactly what that means is yet to be determined by the council. One possible example, the council said, would be a bureau that discloses complaints against a business and how they were resolved. Some bureaus already provide such information.