Lana Young is certain she’s paying 3 or 4 cents before even squeezing the triggering devise that begins pumping gasoline into her gray Honda Civic.
She was complaining about the overcharge earlier this week while purchasing unleaded gasoline from a Florence business.
“This is the second time this has happened to me; it shows I’ve pumped 3 or 4 cents of gas and I haven’t even got the nozzle in my gas tank,” said Young, who lives near Rogersville. “(The price of gasoline) is already bad enough without this. I won’t be back here.”
There are similar complaints statewide — some are discovered to be accurate and others are proved false.
With budget cuts taking a toll on the number of inspectors for checking the accuracy of fuel pumps, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries is asking motorists for help.
“If somebody buys gas and suspects the pump might be out of whack, we want them to give us a call,” said John McMillan, state agriculture commissioner. “We have only five inspectors left to cover the entire state, and there is no way we can inspect the fuel pumps as much as we used to. About all we are able to do now is respond to complaints when someone suspects a fuel pump might be dispensing less gas than the customer is paying for.”
Motorists who suspect a fuel pump might be malfunctioning can call the Department of Agriculture in Montgomery at 334-240-7134.
McMillan said shortfalls in the state budget forced the agriculture department to lay off 91 of its 391 employees in 2011, including 21 in its Weights and Measures Division.
“We hated to separate any of the weights and measures employees,” McMillan said. “That division was already understaffed. But when our budget was cut, we had to make the layoffs.”
Since 2009 the department’s budget has been cut by $4.1 million. It faces additional cuts this year.
The impact of the layoff is obvious on fuel pumps around the Shoals, where some have not been inspected by the agriculture department since 2009. Red stickers shaped like the state of Alabama indicate the pump was inspected in 2009. A blue sticker was placed there after an inspection in 2010. Green stickers are from a 2011 inspection, with brown stickers being used this year.
In addition, the lack of inspectors also prevents department officials from checking the accuracy of the about 20,000 scales used in meat and produce departments of grocery stores and other businesses where products are sold by weight.
Some retailers have began hiring private inspectors to ensure accuracy of their fuel pumps and scales.
“It’s not just the consumers who are protected when the devices are inspected for accuracy on a regular basis,” McMillan said. “We had a report of a diesel pump at a truck stop in the state that was dispensing almost 2 gallons of fuel for every gallon purchased. Truckers were coming from all over to purchase diesel from that pump and it cost the merchant a lot of money.
“On the other hand, if a pump is not dispensing as much as its supposed to, it costs the customer.”
Of the 90,523 fuels pumps around Alabama inspected in 2006, 7,851 failed the inspection, based on department numbers. About half the pumps failing inspection were dispensing too much fuel.
Stacy Boshell, director of the weights and measures division, said the lack of inspectors now limits it to performing random inspections on only 5 percent to 10 percent of the more than 90,000 fuel pumps in the state each year.
“A year ago, we had 20 to 23 inspectors. Now with only five inspectors spread out over the entire state there is no way we can get around to every gas pump in Alabama. Plus when we get a complaint about a pump that might be short-changing customers or has other problems, that takes priority over us performing our random inspections,” Boshell said. “The consumers of Alabama are the ones who are going to suffer the most from our inability to keep a close watch on all the gas pumps and scales in the state.”
The lack of inspectors concerns many residents, including Joe Medders, of Florence.
“I’ve seen places where I would put 30 gallons of gas in a tank that only holds 21 gallons,” Medders said as he bought gas at a Sheffield convenience store. “I’ve also seen places where I would fill up for $15 when I had less than a quarter of a tank when I pulled in. The state needs to have more inspectors to make sure these gas pumps are properly calibrated.”
The pump where Medders was purchasing gas was last inspected almost three years ago.
McMillian is seeking permission from the Legislature to allow more private inspectors to monitor the accuracy of fuel pumps and scales in the state.
The private inspectors would be overseen by the agriculture department.
Doug Howell, assistant plant manager for Lawrenceburg, Tenn.‑based Edwards Oil, said company employees monitor the accuracy of the fuel pumps at its Quick Mart stores in north Alabama. He said the company would welcome more inspections by the agriculture department to help ensure the fuel pumps are accurate.
Jonathan Edwards, president of the company, said most retailers are committed to ensuring their fuel pumps are properly calibrated. He said retailers who intentionally short-change motorists on fuel purchases give the entire industry a bad name.
Brett Hall, deputy commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, said the weights and measures division performs an important service for Alabama consumers.
“Our Weights and Measures Division makes sure people are getting what they pay for,” Hall said. “There’s a lot of talk that gas will go to $5 per gallon, maybe even north or there. If that happens, the work of the Weights and Measures Division is going to become even more critical in ensuring that when someone pays $5 or more for a gallon of gas that they are indeed getting a gallon of gas.”
Hall said most retailers are honest and want their customers to get what they pay for, but fuel pumps and scales are mechanical devices that can lose calibration and must be inspected on a regular basis to ensure they are accurate.
When purchasing fuel, motorists are encouraged to make sure the pump is set on zero dollars and zero gallons before they begin pumping fuel, McMillan said.
He said motorists should pay attention to the number of gallons they are charged for at fuel pumps.
“If somebody has a vehicle with a 15-gallon fuel tank and it takes more gallons than that to fill it up, they need to give us a call,” he said. “Likewise, if they have a 15-gallon tank that’s almost empty when they pull in and it takes only a few gallons to fill it up, they need to give us a call.”
Motorists also are encouraged to call when the price at the pump does not match that on the retailer’s signs or when fuel pumps are leaking or do not operate properly such as shutting off automatically when the vehicle’s tank or full. McMillan said motorists should note the pump number and, if possible, the address of the retailer when calling to report a fuel pump that might be out of calibration or other problems.
Dennis Sherer can be reached at 256-740-5746 or dennis.sherer@TimesDaily.com.