Commonwealth Journal

July 18, 2013

Soaring local gas prices topic of city-county summit

By HEATHER TOMLINSON, CJ Staff Writer
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

A citizen spearheading a push for change in local gas pricing is meeting with community leaders next week on the issue. 
Mickey Williams, of Fairway Lane, Somerset, appeared before Somerset City Council during the Monday, July 8 meeting to discuss what he stated is the county’s most pressing issue: What many are calling unfair gas prices in Pulaski County in comparison to surrounding areas. 
 “Everybody’s talking about it,” Williams said during the meeting.
Williams has appeared before city council several times recently as a representative of the Citizens United Advocacy Group (not to be confused with the Somerset-Pulaski County United group, which is exploring a possible merged city-county government). The main focus of the group is to get to the bottom of the alleged unfair gas prices and effect change. 
During the meeting, Williams said he took an informal survey of local citizens and asked whether they felt gas prices or the merged city-county government was the most important issue facing them. Williams said 186 people answered that gas prices was the most important, while 10 answered that unified government was most important to them. 
Williams has received support from several city officials, including Councilor John Ricky Minton, who has long pushed for some type of action on the city’s part in lowering gas prices. Although Minton didn’t speak on the situation during the July 8 meeting, he has been vocal on the issue in past meetings. 
“Are we going to do anything or are we going to sit here? ... I think it’s our job to speak up,” Minton said during a February meeting. “I think it’s time. I’ve brought it up for the last two years.”
But the city’s hands are tied, according to Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler and Somerset City Attorney Carrie Wiese. 
Wiese has stated that the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office will not investigate because price gouging can only be investigated when a natural disaster occurs. Only then can the attorney general’s office step in, as per state law. The Commonwealth Journal has received similar responses from the attorney general’s office in the past. 
Wiese has suggested that citizens take the situation into their own hands and appeal to lawmakers themselves. Wiese has also said that the city can’t file a lawsuit on behalf of Somerset and Pulaski County residents. She said that would have to be done by the citizens themselves.
“We as a city don’t have the standing to sue on behalf of the people out there,” Wiese said during the February meeting. “ ... so we’re kind of stuck.”
But a recent op-ed piece from Attorney General Jack Conway himself points to one possible reason for the huge disparity in state gas prices. The piece, which appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal early this month, points to the distribution network in northern Kentucky as one possible culprit.
“Our experts uncovered strong data to suggest that Marathon’s acquisition of Ashland Oil in the late 1990s negatively impacted competition in the wholesale gasoline market in Kentucky,” Conway stated in the op-ed. “In other words, our investigation indicated Marathon has a regional monopoly that allows it to manipulate gas prices at the wholesale level. Even after approving the merger in the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission warned that of the nine states involved in the merger, one state bears watching — that was Kentucky.”
Conway also noted in the piece that Marathon is the dominant gas supplier to retailers across Kentucky. 
Conway called on federal regulators to take action in what he calls a antitrust issue — and he stated in the piece that he had asked federal regulators to take action in 2008, when his office’s investigation into the gas prices was carried out. 
Conway stated in the piece that he will not “let the matter rest.”
Conway also noted that “ ... price fluctuations between gas stations are not necessarily indicative of price-gouging or price fixing. 
“One station may have received a newer shipment of gas, at a higher price, which is then reflected at the pump,” Conway added in the op-ed. 
Conway also confirmed what Wiese had told councilors in the past. He stated his office cannot investigate price gouging unless the state’s price gouging statute is declared during an emergency. 
“Gouging is only a small part of the problem in the Commonwealth,” Conway stated in the op-ed. 
During the July 8 Somerset City Council meeting, Williams said he appreciated the council’s hospitality to him, and he stated that he had spoken to Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock as well. 
Williams said he’d like to meet with Girdler, Bullock and city and county officials to discuss the issue.
“We can’t let this thing die,” Williams said.
Girdler and Bullock confirmed on Wednesday that they were slated to meet with Williams on Tuesday, July 23, to discuss the issue. 
Councilors Jim Rutherford and Jerry Burnett were not at the council meeting. 
In other news from the July 8 Somerset City Council meeting:
• Somerset resident Troy Hayes, at 102 Pettus Street, said he and his neighbors were having trouble with children “running wild” in the area. Hayes said children were climbing trees and breaking limbs, and he asked whether there was something to be done to make sure the kids don’t get into dangerous situations.
An officer with the Somerset Police Department stated that a call to 911 would enable an officer to check on the situation. 
• Councilor Pat Bourne said he received several comments from people about the potted plants that were placed downtown as part of a local student’s Rogers Scholar project. 
“They really look nice,” Bourne said.