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West Allis says no to prepay at city gas stations

Move allows police to make gas drive-offs a lower priority

Nov. 27, 2012

West Allis - The Common Council has done an about-face on support of an ordinance that would have required customers to prepay at local gas stations to reduce the number of gas drive-off thefts.

In September, the council supported the idea, but two aldermen - Vincent Vitale and Marty Weigel - who weren't in on the decision asked for reconsideration in October. That move has led to the council nixing a draft of the ordinance last week.

Weigel, for one, said the ordinance, which could have resulted in the loss of a station owner's business license if they didn't comply with the prepay rule, was excessive.

Voluntary approach

Instead of approving the ordinance requiring prepay, aldermen have now decided to let police deal with the problem less formally - by suggesting to business owners that gas drive-off reports won't be prioritized and that a voluntary prepay approach makes the most sense.

That's better than passing a rule that essentially tells station owners how to run their business, said Alderman Thomas Lajsic.

But while Lajsic, who is chairman of the Safety and Development Committee that recommended dropping the ordinance idea, concurred with that business-friendly philosophy, he is at a loss to understand why station owners wouldn't require prepay voluntarily, to protect their business interests.

Voluntary compliance would help solve the city's dilemma: the Police Department's limited resources to respond to gas drive-off thefts.

"We spend far too much time on them," Lajsic said.

Setting priorities

To help police deal with the problem, aldermen gave a strong signal to police that they can make responding to gas drive-offs a low priority, in recognition of the fact that prepay - either through payments inside the store or credit cards at the pump - is a legitimate option for station owners.

"The Police Department can (encourage voluntary prepay) administratively by not responding to those types of calls," Lajsic said.

"I don't mean (patrol officers) would never come (in response in drive-off complaints)," he added, but higher priorities elsewhere would prevent police response in many instances.

Lajsic also maintained that the city would be well within its rights to order prepay, given the impact on the city.

Police viewpoint

The original request for a prepay ordinance came from the Police Department, which was looking for some relief from responding to so many drive-off calls - nearly 700 reports from 2006 through 2011.

Interim Police Chief Charles Padgett said the request got a fair review from the council.

"They seriously considered it," he said. "They didn't take it lightly."

How will police now respond to such thefts?

"I don't like to use the term 'low priority,' " Padgett said, noting that a gas drive-off is truly a theft. But such cases don't usually involve violence, which is at the top of the police priority scale.

The department will continue to work with gas station owners on becoming prepay, he said.

In addition, Padgett said he will examine the policies of other police departments that have problems with gas drive-offs. If that results in a local policy change, gas station owners will be notified.

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