With Utah gas prices 28 cents higher than the national average, Gov. Jon Huntsman is redeploying his cheese and bakery inspectors to keep gas stations honest.
"This gas deal's gotten everybody pretty excited, and the governor wants people to know we're out testing so consumers get what they pay for," Dale Kunze, a weights and measures inspector, said at a Top Stop gas station where the pumps tested, well, pretty accurate.
Kunze and other inspectors represent Huntsman's vow to keep a "laser-like" focus on gas prices. The Department of Agriculture and Food normally has three inspectors dedicated to keeping tabs on Utah's nearly 28,000 gas pumps. Yet, at Huntsman's prompting, the agency reassigned five other inspectors to the task they'd normally be at grocery store delis or bakeries to verify weight scales. They also act on such consumer complaints as the supposed 5-pound box of kitty litter that weighed only 4 pounds, or shorting in cheese bricks.
"I rejected a whole pallet of cheese once," Kunze says proudly.
For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Utah's gas prices remain stubbornly high while the national average has dropped steadily over the past month. On Thursday, AAA Utah said prices averaged $3.94 for a gallon of regular, behind only Alaska and Hawaii. The AAA said the national average was $3.66 a gallon.
AAA spokeswoman Rolayne Fairclough said Utah's relatively isolated Rocky Mountain market can work both ways Utah's prices often are lower than the rest of the nation in winter when gasoline demand eases. But for much of the summer, prices here stayed well above $4 a gallon.
Responding to consumer outrage, Huntsman called out the weights and measures inspectors this month with all the flair of a National Guard deployment. He also announced the Utah Department of Commerce would review any complaints of price gouging. The state is supposed to routinely monitor pumps and investigate price gouging, but Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said it was bringing a "laser-like" focus to its duties.
State authorities suspect gas stations are padding their prices. Two weeks ago, the Utah Petroleum Marketers and Retailers Association admitted to The Salt Lake Tribune that operators were "making a little more than usual" in anticipation of slimmer winter margins.
On Wednesday, however, the group's leader blamed the rest of the supply chain and vigorously defended gas stations he says make only pennies per gallon in the best of times.
"The retailer is a neighbor, even for brand-name gas stations. He's not major oil," John Hill told The Associated Press. "He's some neighbor supporting the soccer team or high-school drama club and trying to make a living. He's not the major oil company making record profits."
The day after Huntsman's announcement, the state's commerce chief said she received multiple reports that gas prices had dropped six cents, hinting at the power of the governor's bully pulpit.
Since then, however, the state has received only a handful of price gouging complaints that amount to "just grousing," said Francine Giani, director of the Utah Department of Commerce, who said she had little power to lower prices. She urged motorists to strike back.
"I tell my friends who complain, 'What kind of car are you driving?' They've got the big old Suburban," Giani said. "I sold my Suburban last year, and I take fewer trips to the grocery store. We need to change our habits, and stay the change."
Asked what weights and measures inspectors can do to curb high gas prices, Kunze laughed. All they can do is make certain that whatever high price stations charge, they dispense the correct amount of gas.
Pump accuracy is no worse now, inspectors say, than during times of lower prices. The team says pumps work to motorists' favor 97 percent of the time.
At the Top Stop on Salt Lake City's Foothill Drive, Kunze found that the pumps shorted motorists no more than 4 cubic inches of gas less than half a cup for every five gallons. Inspectors won't take a pump out of service unless it shorts motorists 6 cubic inches or more for every five gallons.
Michelle Andersen, manager of the Top Stop convenience store, didn't sweat the inspection.
The station never cheats customers do, she said. Or they try, sometimes with outlandish tales, like insisting their gas gauge didn't budge with a fill-up, or leaving a $20 bill at the counter, filling up, then claiming they didn't or forgot to fill up and are returning for another opportunity.
"People will try anything and everything," Andersen said.