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Gas thefts may follow prices

BEMIDJI - With gas prices at an all-time high for this time of the year, area convenience stores said Tuesday that they're not seeing more people drive away without paying.

But at least one manager said the thefts, known as gas drive-offs, could spike as prices climb this spring.

Another store worker wants Bemidji city officials to require businesses to install pre-pay pumps to eliminate the practice, whether intentional or not.

Ed Nynas, manager of the Bemidji Cooperative Association, said gas drive-offs might increase with prices, but he wants drivers to begin conserving gas consumption.

And if the country wants to cut its consumption, the best thing it could do is slow down, Nynas said.

Currently, gas prices are hovering around $3.75 per gallon of regular unleaded. Nationally, the average cost is $3.92 per gallon, and 10 states have an average above $4. That's up about 65 cents since Jan. 1.

Prices are expected to surge within a few weeks when refineries undergo seasonal maintenance.

Patrick DeHaan, a retail price expert with, told the Associated Press he expects the national average to rise to between $3.95 and $4.35 per gallon by the end of April as supplies tighten, particularly in the Great Lakes region.

'opportunity to pay'

Since Sept. 14, when the Bemidji Police Department converted to a new computer system, officers have responded to 79 gas drive-off thefts. In calls to area convenience stores Tuesday, employees said the amount of gas drive-offs have remained steady.

The thefts can be a bit of a pain, said manager Candy Schmickle at Jack'Stop. Employees there, like many others, get the license plate and make of the vehicle and call it into police, who work to track down the suspect vehicle.

"Typically, we give them the opportunity to pay instead of issuing tickets because it is very difficult to prove the intent," Mike Mastin, Bemidji police chief, said in an email.

Most of those who are located most often say they thought a passenger had paid or they didn't realize the credit card was declined, he noted.

Alan Merschman, the owner of Kenny's Clark & Goodyear Service, said drive-offs are usually customers who didn't realize their credit card didn't go through.

Kenny's rarely experiences the thefts, he said, because of its consistent customer interaction, including face-to-face greetings between the employee and driver.

"In our situation, we go out and check with our customers, ask if they need oil," he said. "Everyone knows that we're there."

pay before you pump

Jack'Stop and Kenny's, like most Bemidji gas stations, do not require prepayment for gasoline.

But there are least two that do.

Orton's and Tesoro, both on the city's north side, require patrons to prepay for gas beginning at 4 p.m. daily. The policies have been in place about a year and a half.

Amber Moss at Orton's said customers are now accustomed to the prepayment requirement, but, occasionally, there will be a customer who gets frustrated.

A man who answered the phone at Tesoro said implementation of the prepayment requirements "helped considerably" to reduce the number of drive-off thefts.

The man, who declined to give his name, said he would like the city to enact an ordinance requiring prepayment citywide.

"It saves the taxpayers money," he said, noting the time and effort spent by police on drive-offs.

More common in larger metropolitan areas, a Twin Cities suburb recently became the first in the state to enact such a requirement. The Coon Rapids City Council in February to adopt such an ordinance effective Aug. 1. Coon Rapids, according to reports, had 491 gas drive-offs in 2011 and 492 in 2010, representing 20 percent of its crimes.

saving gas

Robert Christensen, professor emeritus of resource economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, computed that reducing speeds to 55 mph would mean the county would consume 10 billion gallons less fuel, adding up to $40 billion in savings for motorists.

"We would have a substantial reduction in usage and then companies that are making the money, they would lower (prices)," Nynas said.

He referenced the 1973 oil crisis, during which President Richard Nixon supported a national 50 mph speed limit for passenger vehicles and 55 mph speed limit for trucks and buses.

"That's what they should be doing," Nynas said.