Coon Rapids’ prepay gas law survives Legislature

Efforts at the Minnesota Legislature to scuttle the city of Coon Rapids’ ordinance that would require prepayment of gasoline at stations in the city have apparently failed.

Efforts to scuttle Coon Rapids' prepay gas ordinance have failed at the Minnesota Legislature.
Efforts to scuttle Coon Rapids' prepay gas ordinance have failed at the Minnesota Legislature.

On a 5-2 vote in February, the Coon Rapids City Council adopted the prepay ordinance, which is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 1.

But at a special council work session in late January, almost all gas station owners/operators in Coon Rapids opposed the ordinance.

Bills introduced in both the Minnesota Senate and House in mid-April had identical language that would have prevented Coon Rapids from implementing the ordinance.

The language stated, “No local unit of government may criminalize or restrict the sale of motor fuel based upon the method of purchase agreed to by the seller and purchaser.

“Local regulation inconsistent with this section is void.”

The bill became part of the House Omnibus Transportation Policy Bill which passed the House on a 121 to 8 vote April 26 and was sent to the Senate where it had two readings before it was laid on the table.

A separate omnibus transportation bill passed both the House and the Senate last week, but amendments tacked on by the Senate were rejected by the House and the bill was sent to a conference committee of three House members and three Senate members, according to Mark Nisley, House Transportation Committee administrator.

Meeting this past weekend, conference committee members picked up some provisions of the omnibus policy bill that had passed the House and folded them into the overall omnibus transportation legislation, Nisley said.

The provision impacting the Coon Rapids prepay ordinance was not included in the conference committee report that passed the House by a 128-2 vote and the Senate 61-5 Monday.

A conference committee report can only be voted up or down as is; amendments cannot be made.

According to Nisley, while seeing merit in the provision, conference committee members decided not to include it in the final bill because of concerns that it had not received any hearings, especially in judiciary and public safety committees.

When first introduced in the House the bill was referred to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee and in the Senate to the Senate Transportation Committee, but both the House and Senate bill tracking online sites show that the proposed legislation did not receive a hearing in either committee.

“The provision is not likely to see the light of day again this session,” Nisley said.

Had it been approved, the legislation, authored by Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL Minority Leader in the Senate, and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, a House Republican, would have gone into effect the day following enactment.

Coon Rapids Police Chief Brad Wise was disappointed that he was not notified about the bills until some two weeks after they had been introduced in the House and Senate, but he was pleased that the provision was not included in the conference committee action.

Wise feared that once it had become part of an omnibus bill, the legislation would pass because of other items beneficial to the state that were part of the bill, he said.

According to Wise, the number of no-pay calls from gas stations to the police department, which was one of the main reasons why the ordinance was proposed, has dropped off significantly since the debate began at the council level.

“Gas stations are not calling police, but people have not stopped stealing gas,” Wise said.

Under the city ordinance, prepayment can include paying by credit card at the pump, or going inside and paying cash before the pump is turned on.

But the ordinance does have an exception to the prepay requirement offered by Councilmember Bruce Sanders.

That states, “It is an exception… if business owners enter into a civil agreement with customers, pursuant to which customers may activate a fuel pump prior to payment.

“Such an agreement shall include identifying information of the customer that may be used by the business owner for seeking compensation if the appropriate civil court should the customer fail to pay for fuel after activating the pump.”

Wise calls the ordinance a crime prevention tool because of the spate of no pay/gas drive offs at Coon Rapids retail fuel businesses – 492 in 2010 and 481 in 2011, representing almost 20 percent of part one crimes reported in Coon Rapids, he said.

Responding to drive off reports has also been a drain on police resources and led to a spike in the city’s crime rate, Wise said.

And 15 percent of the gas thefts in 2011 were by people in vehicles with stolen license plates, he said.

“The police department has reached out to retail fuel establishments since 2009 in an effort to reduce those thefts reported; however, no meaningful solution has been found,” Wise said

At the work session Jan. 23, gas station owners/operators, who spoke in opposition to the proposal, offered alternatives, including a civil process to deal with gas no pays. This followed meetings of a group of gas station owners/operators in the city to consider solutions other that prepay.

They raised concerns that the ordinance would result in a loss of business and higher costs in credit card fees they would have to pay.

The council was told that the jump in credit card use caused by a prepay ordinance would increase business costs because each time a credit card is used there is at least a 2 percent fee plus a transaction fee.

In the 5-2 council vote to adopt the ordinance, Mayor Tim Howe and Councilmember Jerry Koch voted no.

Under the adopted ordinance, any person or business establishment that violates any of the terms is guilty of a misdemeanor.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]