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Soaring gas prices, sneaky disclosure at stations

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:08 PM
TAMPA -

Anthony Covine was driving on fumes along Interstate 4 outside Orlando a couple weeks ago, so he pulled his Honda Pilot off the freeway to the closest gas station.

Bone tired after a day with his family at the parks, Covine was nearly done filling up before realizing the price at the pump: $4.49, for regular unleaded.

"I work in the gas industry, and I know prices are high, but that's exorbitant," Covine said. "But at that point, everyone was pretty tired so I just said let's pay it and go."

That's exactly the kind of vulnerable customer some gas stations seem to cherish.

In a free market like ours, with no gas price regulation, simple competition and supply and demand economics should in theory keep gas prices relatively even and down. But that's no guarantee that economic rules will apply at every station all the time. Some Florida stations now charge prices that will make even the most bitter driver blink twice.

While the statewide average now stands at $3.91, one station in Tampa near the airport now charges $4.06, and one Chevron-brand station in Orlando charges $5.69. How can that station charge so much?

"We're by the airport," an employee explained over the phone from Orlando, while declining to give his name. "That's better than the car rental places. They're, what? $8.50 or $9?"

 

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That kind of approach doesn't make politicians happy in tourist-centric Orlando.

Noting the 48 million overnight travelers who spend $31 billion in the Orlando economy each year, the Orlando city council condemned "unscrupulous proprietors of gasoline stations near the Orlando International Airport, particularly those catering towards visitors and rental consumers."

Their unscrupulous practice? Technically following the letter of the law, but not prominently advertising their prices on road signs, so rental car drivers would end up on the lot, faced with either paying those prices, or paying a penalty when returning their rental part empty.

"We haven't had a problem in any other area with gas stations not posting their prices," said city spokeswoman Heather Fagan. Other stations usually want to advertise they have lower prices than nearby rivals, she said.

So the city passed a new ordinance that forces stations near the airport to advertise their prices on road signs, and requires the actual price numbers to be at least 14 inches tall or larger.

The City's Code Board gave until May 12 for one particular Chevron station at the airport entrance to comply with new sign rules, but the station did not, Fagan said. It now faces action by the board that could include fines of $250 per day. Managers at that station did not return calls seeking comment.

 

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Florida does regulate the labeling of gasoline at stations, for instance ensuring regular is regular and diesel is diesel. And Florida monitors individual pumps to ensure they accurately measure out gallons.

Beyond that, rules regarding prices and signs become a bit more complex, said Matthew Curran, chief of petroleum inspection with Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Stations can charge whatever price they please, as long as they indicate the price before the customer starts pumping. That can be on the pump display itself. If stations do chose to post a sign out front, they can chose to post a price with restrictions – like cash-only, with a car wash, or a store-brand credit card. But those restrictions must be clearly printed next to the price itself.

 

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Florida regulators often take complaint calls from customers who cite a problem at a station.

For instance, state regulators this January told a station in Seffner that the "Plus" price was incorrect, and the "Regular" price was missing the 9/10 of a cent digit.

In February, regulators sent a warning to a Chevron station in St. Petersburg, noting the price for premium on the sign did not agree with the price at the pump. A day later, the station fixed the sign.

Every summer, Curran said more customers call up claiming stations are "gouging" them at the pump. But gouging has a very specific meaning for state regulators.

When a storm or other disaster hits, and the governor declares a state of emergency, anti price-gouging rules kick into effect, and stations must be able to justify any price increase. What's happening now, Curran said, is that high prices just make people feel gouged.

"As prices rise, you just get a different feel at the pump," Curran said. "Sometimes people just see that total price jumping, and really it's just an artifact of high prices."

Contact Richard Mullins at (813) 259-7919 or rmullins@tampatrib.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/DailyDeadline.

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