BUCKHANNON — A Buckhannon city councilman has accused local gas stations of a “potentially illegal effort of gasoline price gouging” and called on W.Va. state attorney general Patrick Morrisey to investigate the matter.
Robbie Skinner says he was spurred to write the letter after observing that gas prices in Buckhannon are, on average, higher than in surrounding towns.
According to Skinner, towns with average lower gas prices include the neighboring communities of Elkins, Weston, Clarksburg, Bridgeport, Fairmont and Flatwoods, information mostly confirmed by price tracking website www.gasbuddy.com.
The average price of gas in West Virginia on Monday was $2.24, while most gas stations in Buckhannon were selling gas for $2.29 per gallon, according to gasbuddy.com. In contrast, most gas prices on Monday in Elkins were $2.15, gas prices in Weston were $2.16, and gas prices in Bridgeport ranged from $2.12 to $2.15.
In Fairmont, gas prices ran the gamut from $2.12 to $2.28, while gas prices in Flatwoods were higher than Buckhannon, from $2.29 to $2.34.
At a Jan. 19 Buckhannon City Council meeting, resident Robert Osburn addressed council about the matter, observing that gas prices are typically higher in Buckhannon than in neighboring towns.
Osburn, at the time, asked city council to draft a letter to the attorney general seeking answers about Buckhannon’s gas prices. Osburn said he’s worried citizens are driving to surrounding cities to take advantage of lower gas prices and then conducting other business while in those towns.
In response, Buckhannon mayor David McCauley clarified that the city is not permitted to tax gasoline and pointed out that there is no business and occupation tax on gasoline.
In his Feb. 8 letter — which he posted to social media — Skinner wrote, “I recognize that many variables affect gas prices and prices do vary somewhat depending upon locations, supply of, and demand for the product, but I fail to understand how a 12-mile drive along Corridor H from the Sheetz store in Weston to the Sheetz store in Buckhannon can result in a 30-cent (on average) price increase.
“Additionally, the 22-mile drive along the same highway from the GoMart store in Elkins to the GoMart store in Buckhannon proves the same result.”
“This is an absurd and potentially illegal effort of gasoline price gouging in our community,” Skinner’s letter continues. “Because of this, our citizens are purchasing gasoline elsewhere while conducting business at places like Weston, Elkins and Clarksburg, just to name a few, before returning home.”
Skinner’s letter asks for a full-fledged investigation into the matter, noting, “The citizens of our community deserve fair and honest business practices in every sector of the community.”
In response to inquiries from The Record Delta, Skinner said he felt obligated as a person holding a position of power and authority to speak up.
“It is my duty to speak up when I, and others, believe something is wrong,” Skinner said Tuesday. “That’s what I was elected to do.”
Skinner says he expects the AG’s office to “conduct a thorough” investigation into the issue.
Skinner could not provide any specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of local gas stations.
“I do not believe I have enough information at this time to render an opinion about law violations or illegal activities that may/or may [sic] taking place,” Skinner said in his statement to The Record Delta. “However, I believe the citizens of our community deserve fair and honest business practices, and if we are in fact victims of some sort of ‘price fixing’ or ‘price gouging’ effort, it should be stopped immediately.”
Skinner said he did not consult with city attorney Tom O’Neill prior to drafting or sending the letter.
Although Skinner used the term “price gouging” in his letter, the Facebook page for the West Virginia Attorney General says price gouging laws only go into effect during a state of emergency.
“Price gouging laws go into effect upon the declaration of a state of emergency, and continue for the duration of the state of emergency or 30 days after the declaration (whichever is longer),” according to a 2014 post.
There is currently no state of emergency in effect for Upshur County.
The Record Delta attempted to contact major gas stations in the area multiple times by phone and email in an effort to understand and relay to readers how gas prices are determined in Buckhannon and in nearby areas. These efforts were met with managers’ unwillingness to talk to the press and no response from the corporations’ public relations departments.
The mayor also chimed in on his take on gas prices. When contacted by The Record Delta, McCauley did not discuss the specifics of Skinner’s letter, but he did suggest he might have taken a different tact.
“I would prefer to sidestep potential divisiveness and see if we could work with the actual folks at Sheetz and GoMart to see if they would be willing to treat us more equitably, as they do with the folks in Elkins in Weston,” McCauley said Tuesday. “I would like to talk to them first and see if they’ll treat us a little better.”