Local gas stations report drive-offs, frustrated customers amid high prices |

News Photo by Julie Riddle
Assistant Manager Kasy Buchner, left, and cashier Abby Sheldon help a customer at Diamond Point Shell in Alpena Township on Thursday.

ALPENA — Sky-high gas prices that make drivers surly also take a toll on the attendants tasked with taking drivers’ money, and on the owners left in the lurch when customers drive away without proper payment, gas station employees say.

Customers stressed by prices posted on pumps and bitter toward political figures they believe caused high gas prices sometimes bring their grumbles inside and turn them toward their cashier, said Sherry Beattie, employee at Seymour’s Long Lake, north of Alpena on U.S.-23 North.

Other customers, especially those coming from the north, thank her for the store’s prices, which — although usually a few cents per gallon higher than Alpena prices — fall well below gas costs in Rogers City, where drivers regularly pay 20 to 30 cents more per gallon than in Alpena.

As of Thursday evening, the average gas price in Alpena County was $4.72 per gallon, according to AAA.

Beattie sympathizes with her customers who worry about their business failing because of rising fuel costs.

News Photo by Julie Riddle
Sherry Beattie, employee at Seymour’s Long Lake, arranges floral bouquets sold by the gas station on Thursday.

Her husband, who drives an hour each way to get to his job, agreed to contracts with customers before the higher fuel costs set in and now has to either eat the greater expense or pass it along to customers, themselves already hurting from the steep cost of keeping their vehicle running.

“They’re struggling to make ends meet, and they’re complaining about the gas prices a lot,” Beattie said of her customers. “I don’t blame them. They’re the little guy trying to survive, right?”

Seymour’s has had to insist customers pre-pay for gas because of a noticeable increase in people driving off without paying, Beattie said.

Police have received few official complaints about gas station drive-offs, but those crimes don’t always get turned into official reports, said Trooper Jordan Stone of the Michigan State Police-Alpena Post.

Business owners with security cameras or identifying information that could help police catch gas thieves often choose to prosecute, but many store owners don’t have adequate surveillance equipment to provide that evidence, Stone said.

Sometimes business employees can provide a license plate number — which police may use to track down a vehicle, though they may not be able to prove who was driving it — or a description of the vehicle, but, “there’s a lot of blue trucks driving around,” Stone said.

Still, he said, police investigate every complaint of fuel theft and catch those they can.

Like shoplifting, fuel theft hurts more than the store owner. The community loses when a business, including a gas station, has to change its practices or even close because of financial loss from people stealing from it, Stone said.

Fuel theft, classified as retail fraud, can mean the loss of a driver’s license, according to the Michigan Penal Code.

A person convicted of gas theft could spend three months in jail and pay a fine of $500 or three times the value of the fuel stolen, whichever is greater, with stricter penalties for a repeat offense or theft of more than $200 in gas.

At current prices, that higher amount is not out of the question, said Abby Sheldon, cashier at Diamond Point Shell in Alpena Township.

People driving diesel pickup trucks may have to shell out more than $300 to fill their tanks at current prices, Sheldon said, helping a customer who said she hadn’t pre-paid enough to fill her truck’s tank all the way and needed to add more money to her tab.

Drivers seem to be topping off their tanks more often, perhaps staying full to improve gas mileage, said Assistant Manager Kasy Buchner.

She hasn’t heard whether gas prices might come down any time soon, Buchner said.

The Diamond Point store has not moved to pre-paid gas only, but employees have noticed more drive-offs recently, the workers said.

Though drivers may choose to not pay out of frustration at gas costs, their unpaid bills fall on the shoulders of station owners trying to keep prices low for their customers and to make their own ends meet, Buchner said.

“I don’t think they really realize what they’re doing when they drive off,” Sheldon said. “That it comes out of someone’s commission.”

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.

Ways to save on gasoline

∫ Combine errands to limit driving time.

∫ Remove excess weight in your vehicle.

∫ Consider paying cash. Some retailers charge extra per gallon for customers who pay with a…

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