March 19, 2018
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Shortchanging at gas pumps hard to quantify, lawmakers told

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
In this May 4, 2010 photo, Carlton Blanche, a state consumer protection inspector, carries a calibrated test measuring can by a fuel pump at a gas station in Maine.
By Mal Leary, Maine Public

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last year more than 5 percent of the state’s gas pumps misstated how much fuel was pumped, lawmakers learned Thursday. But, due to an outdated database, it was unclear how many pumps delivered too little gas and how many pumped too much.

Hal Prince, director of the Bureau of Weights and Measures, told the Legislature’s Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation Committee that he was hampered by the inadequate system for collecting and analyzing data.

He told the panel that after news accounts indicated several stations in different parts of the state had been overcharging and undercharging consumers, the Office of Information Technology was asked to determine an error rate from the Weights and Measure’s inspection records. They provided a report that indicated that in 2010 the agency tested 8,214 gas nozzles and 432 were malfunctioning for an error rate of 5.26 percent.

Asked by Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner, how much of the error rate was attributed to pumps over delivering and how much was attributed to pumps under delivering gasoline to consumers, Prince said he could not answer that question.

“I wish I had better information, but unfortunately I don’t,” he said. He told lawmakers he gets limited data from the existing program. He said he would like to use the data the inspectors gather to aid in the scheduling of inspections or in analyzing if there are any trends that should be investigated.

“I will try to get that information from OIT,” Prince said.

He got a quick comment from Rep. Dean Cray, R-Palmyra, on that statement.

“Good luck with that,” he said. Cray is sponsor of a bill to abolish the technology office and have each agency handle their technology needs. He said he has heard numerous complaints about OIT.

“After listening to what was said today, there is no way to say if there is any outright fraud so to speak, “ said Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, co-chairman of the committee. “I think just to make everyone’s mind a little easier they probably should continue to push the IT people to get a system that works better than this.”

He said committee members read the published comments of Agriculture Commissioner Walter Whitcomb that the department was working to fix the problem and they are taking him at his word.

“We know it is a problem and we are working to fix it,” Whitcomb said two weeks ago, “Believe me, it is a high priority.”

Prince gave the panel an overview of the inspection process that is carried out by both state inspectors and local sealers hired by municipalities. He also showed the panel a $500 specially made 5-gallon stainless steel container used to measure the accuracy of gas pumps. He also said he has been given approval to replace a broken device used to measure octane content in fuel.

“We have been only testing when we have had a consumer complaint,” he said, “and that is expensive, about $150 a test. This will allow us to do spot checks on octane content again, and not just spot checks of nozzle accuracy.”

Prince said replacing the old system, which is used to track all of the inspections done by his staff, is not as simple as it sounds. He said he is working with OIT to find a software program that not only will replace the old system he uses but can be used by other inspectors within the Department of Agriculture.

“We are talking with several vendors,” he said. “We are also looking at a system that appears to be universally accepted throughout the state and that may be the solution.”

Prince said any new system will have a cost to buy and implement and that will be a budget issue for Commissioner Whitcomb and the Legislature.

“We need to be able to move all the data we have in the existing database to any new system,” he said. “It is very important to have all of that history to use in a new system.”

Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, the co-chairman of the panel, said it will be up to the committee to make sure the existing system is fixed or replaced. He also shared the concerns raised about technology office and its operations.

“We are going to have to ride herd on this,” he said.

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