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City-owned filling station in Ky. has lower prices

Samir Cook filled up his vehicle at a city-run gas station in Somerset, Ky. The mayor hopes to lower prices in the city.
Samir Cook filled up his vehicle at a city-run gas station in Somerset, Ky. The mayor hopes to lower prices in the city.Bruce Schreiner/Associated Press

SOMERSET, Ky. — 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 residents about stubbornly high gas prices in Somerset, a city of about 11,000 near Lake Cumberland, a popular fishing and boating haven.

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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 is standing firm behind the city-run station. The station 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.

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George Wilson, the town's economic development business coordinator, said gas prices in Somerset are often 20 to 30 cents a gallon higher than in neighboring towns. Many lake visitors fuel up elsewhere, costing Somerset millions of dollars in retail sales, Girdler said.