Commonwealth Journal

February 26, 2014

Recent jump in pump prices here has some on a crusade

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

Another increase in gas prices, another plea from city councilors and community members for an answer to a problem they say has persisted for years. 
“Folks, we’re in a crisis,” said Somerset resident Mickey Williams, of Fairway Lane, Somer-set, during Monday’s Somerset City Council meeting. “We’ve talked and we’ve talked and we’ve talked ... But we are actually in a crisis here.” 
Williams is just one of many local people who have been vocal about what they say are unfair gas prices in the area. Somerset City Councilor John Ricky Minton has also led the charge and called for answers from local distributors as to the disparity between Pulaski’s gas prices and gas prices in other areas. 
“We’ve got to do something,” Williams said on Monday. “We’ve said this over, and over, and over, and over.”
Their concerns raised to such a fever pitch that a “meeting of the minds” was staged in August with local gas station owner Charlie Patel, Williams, Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler and Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock. Councilors Minton and Donna Hunley also attended.
But while the meeting helped fire up a dialogue about who or what is behind the disparity in gas prices, things had fallen relatively quiet over the last several months. 
But that was until Monday, when local gas prices made a jump to $3.59 per gallon, a full 20 cents higher than in London and 14 cents higher than the state average. 
Williams invited each of the councilors to what he coined a “gas price summit,” and said he would also invite county officials to the meeting as well — although he noted he was unable to get on the agenda for Tuesday’s Pulaski County Fiscal Court meeting, as he was told he hadn’t given them a full 24-hour notice. 
“We’re going to invite the county people that need to be there,” said Williams. 
Williams said he’s hoping to see a myriad of city and county officials at the meeting, along with local residents. He noted that he was working on bringing in an “expert “ in the issue to help get to the bottom of the issue. 
“The last time we had this on a smaller version, we didn’t have very much attendance out of your group, so we would love to have a big representation,” Williams told the councilors on Monday. 
Williams said the forum is set for Tuesday, March 4, at 10 a.m., but he noted he is still working on a location. 
Williams said representatives of Lake Cumberland Shell, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, Murphy Oil, and more will also be invited — although there is a slim chance they will attend. 
City councilors several years ago extended an invitation to corporate representatives in hopes of getting some answers to their questions in the gas price controversy, and their invitation was declined. The business leaders said to meet in one room would violate federal anti-trust laws. 
On Monday, Williams called the businesses “the ones who are all agreeing on a price.” 
“It is absolutely no secret what’s going on,” Williams said. “Everyone in the room knows what’s happening.” 
Williams said the current strategy is to make a visit to the corporations if they fail to come to the forum. 
“If we don’t get any of them there, we will make a point to visit them,” said Williams. 
Questions as to what exactly leads to a set gasoline price don’t ever get a simple answer. Corporate representatives have pointed out that gasoline is traded as a commodity on the stock market, which influences the prices throughout the day. Supply and demand in the country’s several markets, weather, political unrest in other areas of the world, industry operations, and more all contribute to the prices as well — before they even get to the local distributors. Federal and state gasoline taxes (in Kentucky it sits at 32.3 cents per gallon) also affect the difference in prices between states (say, Kentucky and Tennessee). 
And representatives have pointed out that the gas market is different than other competitive markets because the prices are displayed so that the consumer can drive by and see them. With a majority of Pulaski County’s gas providers set up alongside U.S. 27, a consumer can look from one side of the street to another to compare prices — which are often the same.
City officials have said in the past they understand the national, international, and regional factors that affect prices. But they continue to point out that Somerset-area prices remain significantly higher than a majority of other gasoline providers in the state. 
And they have pointed out that there seems to be a lack in competition among the local gas distributors. 
“We have no competition in this town, true competition,” said Councilor Jim Rutherford during an October 2013 meeting. “Where people want to treat a customer right at a decent price ... These places are like ‘You know what, we’re okay where we are and we just won’t compete with each other.’”
Williams asked that city officials become more active in the search for an answer to the gas price controversy. 
“Please, if you can if you’ve got other engagements, break them and come to this,” Williams asked. “We’d be interested in just anything you have to bring to the table.
“Let’s see if we can get together and help the people in this city and the county,” he added.