Clash over Suffolk bill to require posting of credit card gas prices

Legislator Al Krupski speaks during a public hearing

Legislator Al Krupski speaks during a public hearing at the Suffolk County Legislature in Smithtown on Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

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Gas station owners clashed with union and education leaders at the Suffolk County Legislature Tuesday over a proposed local law aimed at retailers who charge credit card prices that can be $1 more per gallon than the cash price.

Also Tuesday, lawmakers voted to put a proposal on the November ballot to create a $29.4 million fund for open space and clean water projects -- the amount the county has borrowed from the fund to balance its budget over environmentalists' objections.

Gasoline dealers, who beat back an earlier proposal to require some dealers to install new equipment at the pump to warn customers of the price differential, fought the new bill in a nearly two-hour public hearing.

The legislation, sponsored by Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), would require stations with credit card prices that are more than 5 percent higher than the cash prices to list the higher prices on their roadside signs.

Dealers noted that both cash and credit prices already are displayed at the pump. They also said the proposed law would violate their First Amendment rights to advertise their best price to bring in customers.

"The county cannot dictate how we do business," said Kevin Beyer, president of the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association and owner of a gas station near the county legislature building in Hauppauge.

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But Richard O'Kane, head of the Nassau Suffolk Building Trades Council, said the proposal could save unwitting customers from having to pay higher credit charges that could total $15 per tank.

"If you pass this, my membership of 59,000 members will thank you," said O'Kane, whose members are recovering from the economic downturn. "Fifteen dollars on top of a $50 bill [for a tank of gas] is an outrage."

Ben Zwirn, speaking for Suffolk County Community College president Shaun McKay, also supported the proposal, saying it will help the college's 26,000 commuting students.

"I don't see this bill as trying to punish anyone," he said. "We see it as modification . . . so people have a real choice."

Adam Wolf, chief operating officer of Jericho Wholesale, a Shell Oil distributor, said gasoline dealers "are breaking no laws by charging different amounts for cash and credit." Wolf said the use of roadside signs advertising lower cash prices is "not a misleading, unlawful or deceptive practice," and is protected by U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The 14-4 vote in favor of the water quality proposal ended a lengthy dispute between the county and environmentalists over borrowing from the county's drinking water fund.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, called the bill an "outstanding opportunity to do a very good thing. It ends a nonproductive conflict."

Amper's group has filed two lawsuits against Suffolk for diverting the money without voter approval.

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The bill allows Suffolk County to borrow from the fund for three years, with repayment of all borrowing due by 2029.

Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) called that "kicking the can down the road with a steel-tipped boot. There's no plan to pay it back. It's ludicrous to continue borrowing the money."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said officials aren't sure how much additional borrowing will be needed, but the administration is committed to limiting its reliance on one-shot funds.

Lawmakers said Tuesday the county could borrow up to $90 million from the fund through 2017.

Legislators voted late Tuesday to delay a companion bill, which would require future changes to the water-protection fund be approved by voters.

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County Attorney Dennis Brown told lawmakers that issue is pending a decision in court. The bill is scheduled to next come up in September.

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