Palm Beach County gas price spike has motorists fuming, station manager explaining

LAKE WORTH, Fla. -- When a Lake Worth gas station hiked the price of a gallon of regular gas on Sunday to $4.19, motorist Adrian Bellido called it a "crime."

Brian Mercurio called it "disgusting."

George Schaaf probably summed up best what his fellow drivers thought: "Wow, these guys are price gougers!"

But to Aabhash Pradhan, the gas station's manager, the whole episode was simply a "mistake."

Whether or not the Chevron-branded gas station at 6760 Lantana Road, just west of Jog Road, actually met the definition of price gouging under Florida law remains to be determined.

Five complaints have so far been received by Attorney General Pam Bondi's price gouging hotline about the gas station, said John Lucas, Bondi's spokesman. Lucas said that one of those complaints was deemed to be unfounded and that the other four were still under investigation Tuesday.

"We have to do the investigation to determine if price gouging did occur," Lucas said.

Pradhan, whose company Lantana Oil Inc. operates the independently owned station, said the price jump was a mishap that should not have happened.

"It was not jacked up," Pradhan said of the $4.19 price. "The employee made a mistake, he was supposed to put a bag on it (the pump)."

Pradhan explained that the new employee activated the price jump at about 2:30 p.m. as station's fuel dwindled to about 1,200 gallons. When the fuel reserves at the station hit 850 gallons, the pumps stop working, Pradhan said, adding that he tries to keep a reserve of fuel in case police or other emergency workers need to gas up during a storm. Bottom line: his employee should've known to close the pumps down.

Still, Pradhan acknowledged that most drivers would be less than sympathetic. He said that it's difficult to compete with the stations owned by the big oil corporations, who sell the gas to independently owned stations like his at a price that is higher than corporate stations' retail price. Pradhan said he paid $3.94 a gallon on Friday for 6,000 gallons from Crystal Petroleum, a Chevron supplier. That price was higher, he said, because of the Isaac-related shutdown of Port Everglades over the weekend, the main point-of-entry for petroleum into South Florida.

After credit card fees and operating costs, Pradhan said he was making nine cents per gallon even at the $4.19 price. Asked if it would then make sense to charge that much a gallon when costs go high, he said it does in the short term — but not in the long term.

"Financially, it does, but we want to stay with the competition," Pradhan said. "We try not to go much higher than the competition because then nobody will come to the store."

Mercurio, 52, of Lake Worth, said he'll never go to the Lantana Road station again.

"I don't see how somebody could look themselves in the mirror after doing this to people," he said.

Bellido, 48, of Royal Palm Beach, couldn't believe what the station was charging Sunday.

"Oh, I was just astonished," Bellido said. "I was thinking that they're taking advantage of people. It's a crime."

Of course, the state will decide if any violation of law has taken place. According to Florida law and the attorney general's Web site, it's illegal to sell essential commodities at a price that "grossly exceeds" the average price for that commodity in the 30 days before a state of emergency is called. Examples of essential commodities include food, ice, gas and lumber.

As then-Tropical Storm Isaac approached Florida, Gov. Rick Scott called a state of emergency on Saturday.

Lucas said that state officials probing reports of Isaac-related gouging at gas stations will need to examine each station's prices in the 30 days prior to Saturday. They will need to confirm if there was a "gross disparity" from the past month's daily average.

Each situation is different and a variety of factors are taken into consideration, including whether or not market conditions justify an increase, Lucas said. If a business is determined to have engaged in price gouging, the penalty ranges from $1,000 per violation up to $25,000 for multiple violations committed in a 24-hour period.

Bellido, Mercurio, and Schaaf, 54, of Lake Worth, each made complaints to the price gouging hotline about the Lantana Road station.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the hotline had received 89 complaints of gouging state-wide, low compared to previous storms, Lucas said.