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Prepaying for gas may become only way

With gasoline thefts accounting for one in six serious crimes reported in Coon Rapids, the north metro suburb could take a step unprecedented for a Minnesota municipality: requiring prepayment at the pump.

Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA , Star Tribune

Updated: October 27, 2011 - 3:06 PM

Coon Rapids, where one of every six serious crimes reported is a gasoline theft, could become the first municipality in Minnesota to require prepayment at the pump.

Meanwhile, members of the Minnesota Service Station Association will vote Thursday on whether to ask the Legislature next year to make prepay state law in 2012.

"We're still Minnesota Nice, but a lot of people come in and say, 'I can't believe I can come in and pay,'" said Andrea Drake, president of the trade group.

Paying on the honor system may be part of the state's social fabric, but in Coon Rapids and elsewhere it's a privilege that's abused regularly. There were 492 reports of fuel theft in the city in 2010, with fewer than 2 percent resulting in arrests. By contrast, 74 percent of shoplifting reports resulted in arrests.

Fuel thefts peaked in the city at 535 in 2006, after starting out at 225 in 2002.

The Minnesota Service Station Association doesn't track statewide numbers, but members report that theft trends follow the economy and the cost of gas, said Drake, who also owns two stations in White Bear Lake.

"The higher gas goes, the more drive-offs we have," she said.

The proposal could go before the City Council next month. If it passes, gas pumps wouldn't be activated without payment, by credit card at the pump or by cash inside.

Police Chief Brad Wise said the change would free police from pursuing what are typically difficult cases. Fuel thieves are notorious for driving stolen cars or installing stolen plates. Even when the vehicle is located, it often is difficult to match the owner with a thief's description.

Fewer fuel thefts would free up officers to focus on other, more serious crimes, he added.

"All of crime prevention is seeing if you can reduce crime in one area so you're able to concentrate on other areas," he said. "There's a cost that's imposed on the Police Department, in terms of extra calls for service. This is about less government, not more."

Individual stations can require prepayment on their own, said Drake, whose Fridley Holiday Station is prepay-only. But operators risk losing customers to stations that offer the convenience of accepting payments after the gas has been pumped.

A prepay ordinance would shelter operators from taking the risk alone "so it's a fair playing field for everybody," said Jerry Charmoli, owner of Highway 10 Mobil Car Care Center, one of more than two dozen stations in Coon Rapids. Charmoli's station loses $400 to $1,000 a month in stolen fuel, he said. That's not difficult when each fill-up runs $50-$80.

Kwik Trip, a regional chain that owns a station in Coon Rapids, is reserving judgment on the proposed ordinance, said spokesman Steve Wrobel.

Experiences elsewhere

New Jersey and Oregon have banned self-service for more than 50 years, requiring attendants to pump gas. The impetus, however, was not drive-offs but safety.

In Kansas City, it's difficult to quantify a dollar benefit from the city's decision to require prepay only, said city spokesman Dennis Gagnon, but police are free to focus on other crimes, and residents have become used to the change.

"It's not an issue; people just do it," he said. "If you don't, you don't get gas."

In the years since Kansas City adopted its ordinance, several neighboring communities have done the same.

On the other hand, in Green Bay last summer, the City Council voted not to adopt a similar ordinance, despite the support of police and station owners. Opponents expressed distaste for adding government regulation on businesses.

"The discussions at the committee level focused a lot on the balance of the government intervening in private business and dictating what private businesses do," said Assistant City Attorney Kail Becker. "It was very much a philosophical debate, rather than a practical debate."

Coon Rapids Council Member Scott Schulte, owner of HiTen Service Center, sold fuel until 2006. He said he's heard some of the same questions.

"Some people have been asking, 'Why would government get involved here? Why take it out of the hands of business?'" he said, adding that the proposal would free businesses from taking the risk on their own. "It doesn't make sense to waste taxpayer dollars and time there. Let's reserve the police for protecting and serving the way residents want."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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