Myrtle Beach Mulling Prepay

City considering solutions to stem driveoffs

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- A prepay fuel law under consideration by the Myrtle Beach, S.C., City Council would make the city among the first in the nation to address what industry experts say is a growing problem because of increasing gas prices, reported the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

The law would force stores to require prepayment of fuel in an effort to reduce the time police spend on gasoline theft cases, which officials say are rarely solved.

Last year from January 1 to September 20, police responded to 484 driveoff calls, with each [image-nocss] report taking police 15 minutes, Assistant City Manager John Pedersen told the newspaper. Two resulted in arrests, he said.

While supporters of the proposal say it will free police to tackle more serious crimes, convenience store operators are concerned about the effect on their business, the report said.

Myrtle Beach might be more prone to theft than other areas because of the transient the tourist who doesn't have a stake in the community, Jeff Lenard, a spokesperson for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), told the paper. Nationally, gasoline thefts totaled up to roughly $112 million and as much as $1,500 per store in 2003, saidf the report, citing NACS data. It has increased in 2004 and 2005, Lenard added.

Intentionally leaving a gas station without paying is a misdemeanor in South Carolina and can carry a fine of $500 and 30 days in jail. A violator's driver's license also can be suspended.

In 2004, Mount Pleasant, S.C., passed what NACS said is the first prepay law in the nation, similar to what Myrtle Beach is considering. Town Administrator Mac Burdette said the law eliminated about 200 complaints yearly about gasoline theft. It's the simplest, most straightforward way to eliminate one type of crime, he told the paper.

Burdette said c-store owners and workers initially complained about the intervention of business practices. Some patrons also complained the prepay law was inconvenient, he said. That's the world we live in, and sometimes you have to have some inconveniences to address the bigger problem, he said, noting the town has not received a complaint about the law in six months.

Howard Duvall, executive director of the South Carolina Municipal Association, said municipalities should focus on how such a law can easily reduce work for police. Once the convenience store people understand this is really about keeping police officers on the street and making the neighborhoods safer...they support the method, he said.

Duvall and Lenard said driveoffs likely are increasing because people cannot afford the gasoline.

Myrtle Beach police Capt. David Knipes said police responded to 36 gasoline driveoffs in April, down from 51 during the same period last year.

Burdette said Mount Pleasant tried to get stores to voluntarily enact a prepay regulation, but stores would not agree for fear that customers would instead go to stores without the requirement.

Lenard said competition among businesses is one reason stores do not enact the policy themselves. Also, some stores make fewer sales of food or drinks inside the building as people pay more frequently with credit cards outside, he said. If you require prepay and the competition doesn't, you will lose your customers, he said. The convenience store has become inconvenient.

With a blanket regulation, all retailers would be on a level playing field, he said.

In Myrtle Beach, however, the doughnut holes of Horry County property that are located within city limits would not be subject to the city's laws, said the report. Those stations near doughnut hole areas or near the city's border could see a greater effect than stores well within city limits, Lenard said.

The Myrtle Beach City Council rejected the law in January when police asked members to consider it, the paper said.

We didn't really look at the amount of time the officers are spending, how many there are and the fact that they're only catching 2% of them, said Councilman Randal Wallace, who put the law back on the council's agenda.

Councilman Mike Chestnut said Mount Pleasant's law has not inconvenienced him when he travels. If we can find a way to keep our officers on the street instead of running behind these people that don't pay for gas, I'd be all for it, he said.

Wallace said it is unfortunate the city must interfere with a business practice but gasoline driveoffs are preventable and not the best use of police time.

Lenard said there is no clear solution because c-stores do not want government interference, but are greatly affected by driveoffs. I just think it'd be a shame to see one more thing on the honor system going away, he said, according to the report.