Drivers not shy about crying 'gouger'

Timothy Gray wants to know how a gas station in Dunedin was able to justify a nearly 93 cent hike in its gas prices Friday.

Gray, the owner of a lawn maintenance business, said the store charged $3.71 on Friday morning when he filled up and $4.64 when he went back for more gas Friday night. On Tuesday, it was back down to $3.71, he said.

"They said it was a mistake — that it was supposed to go up this week," said Gray, 51. "They were taking the opportunity to grab all the money they could get: 'Oh, there's a disaster, let's cash in on it.' "

Gray was one of thousands who complained about spiking gas prices in the wake of Hurricane Ike, with some saying they paid as much as $5.50 a gallon. But the reason prices around the state increased is still unclear, and it likely won't be known for some time. The state had received 3,300 complaints of price gouging statewide as of late Tuesday.

Hillsborough passed Leon County on Tuesday as the county with the most complaints (138). Pinellas complaints totaled 73.

"They're all over Florida," Attorney General Bill McCollum said.

Contributing to the problem was a furious spate of panic buying that began Thursday and was especially acute in the Tallahassee area.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson blamed unnamed "blogs on the Internet" for triggering the panic and said it appeared many Tallahassee-area stations didn't anticipate a surge in demand that would accompany Florida State University's home football game.

"I'm getting concerned that people are actually believing what they see on these blogs," Bronson told the St. Petersburg Times. "This is dangerous stuff. This is exactly the same thing as yelling 'Fire!' in a crowded theater."

On Friday, the Tallahassee Democrat blog posted a photo of a gas station in that city selling regular gas at $5.49 a gallon — a price spike the station owner said he was passing on from his supplier.

Bronson's office subpoenaed 16 terminal operators that supply fuel to Florida stations.

McCollum's Tampa office subpoenaed the corporate officers of four large retail chains that run gas stations in Florida: Flying J, Valero, Pilot Travel Centers and Dodge's Gas Stores.

By issuing subpoenas, Bronson said he hopes to find out how much fuel was in the terminals' Florida holding tanks Thursday and at what price.

"I'm not going to accuse anybody yet," Bronson said. "But I'm very dubious of some of these prices. And the public is getting very upset with this whole thing."

Calls to the terminal suppliers and the retailers did not help clarify the wild differences in prices around the state, with some suppliers saying prices are set by independent operators and some gas stations saying their prices are set by their corporate offices.

"The stores that carry the Valero brand are not company-operated," said Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero, one of the companies that was subpoenaed because of a lot of price-gouging complaints. "They are owned and operated by independent business people."

People who complained about the prices to the state wanted answers though.

"I'm like anybody else," said Barbara Brown, a 61-year-old administrator at a physical therapy practice in San Antonio who saw a 79 cent increase at a San Antonio Flying J. "When crude oil barrels are selling for less than $100 a barrel, why on earth are they gouging us? Something's crooked somewhere."

Day would not discuss any price hikes at Valero stores, but he noted that three of Valero's refineries were shut down due to Ike, representing 700,000 gallons of production a day.

Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, which represents suppliers, said that although Florida has a decent supply of fuel right now, 27 percent of refineries are not producing right now because of damage from Hurricane Ike.

"I think it would be ignorant to say that you take 27 percent offline and not have any impact," Mica said. "I mean we're dealing with a scarcity of product right now."

Secretary of Environmental Protection Mike Sole said that 177-million gallons of fuel was stored in Florida's ports Tuesday, which he called an average supply able to cover four to five days.

"There is no shortage of fuel," Bronson reiterated on Tuesday. "But it didn't make any difference."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Drivers not shy about crying 'gouger' 09/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 7:41am]

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