SOMERSET - Somerset's city hall ventured into the retail gas business Saturday, opening a municipal-run filling station that supporters call a benefit for motorists and critics denounce as a taxpayer-supported swipe at the free market.
The Somerset Fuel Center opened to the public selling regular unleaded gas for $3.36 a gallon, a bit lower than some nearby competitors. In the first three hours, about 75 customers fueled up at the no-frills stations, where there are no snacks, no repairs and only regular unleaded gas.
The mayor says the station was created in response to years of grumbling by townspeople about stubbornly high gas prices in Somerset, a city of about 11,000 near Lake Cumberland, a popular fishing and boating haven.
The venture got a thumbs-up from customers who let their vehicles reach near-empty in anticipation of the city-run station's opening.
"I'm tickled to death that they're trying to do something," Ed Bullock said as he filled up his car. "I'm glad they made the investment."
The venture unnerved local filling station and convenience store operators suddenly competing with the city in this Republican stronghold. Critics said the government has no business imposing itself into the private sector, and one store owner branded it as socialism.
Mayor Eddie Girdler, however, is standing firm behind the idea of the city-run station. The canopied station on the outskirts of this southern Kentucky town was converted from use by government vehicles into one that can also cater to anyone looking to fill their tanks.
"We are one community that decided we've got backbone and we're not going to allow the oil companies to dictate to us what we can and cannot do," Girdler said. "We're going to start out small. Where it goes from here we really don't know."
The amount charged motorists will be based on an average regional price for gas, and will include a small markup to cover costs, the mayor said. The city isn't out to make a profit, he said. Instead, the goal is to lower gas prices and lure more lake visitors into Somerset, he said.
Four nearby stations in Somerset were selling regular unleaded for $3.39 a gallon Saturday.
Duane Adams, a convenience store owner in Somerset, sees the city's station as a slap in the face that could hurt his business.
"They've used the taxpayer money that I have paid them over these years to do this, to be against us," he said. "I do not see how they can't see that as socialism."
Other retail groups, including the Kentucky Petroleum Marketers Association, urged other municipalities not to follow suit. "If milk got too high, are you going to build a dairy?" said Ted Mason, executive director of the Kentucky Grocers Association and Kentucky Association of Convenience Stores.