State workers testing more gas pumps

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Associated Press

Posted on October 17, 2013 at 7:06 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 18 at 9:00 AM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama drivers now can have a little more confidence in the accuracy of those lower pump prices that are being posted around the state, and the quality of gas that they're getting.

Gas prices drifted below $3.10 a gallon at sites across the River Region this week, and prices statewide were down 17 cents in the past month according to GasBuddy.com. The site is predicting that pump prices could drop below $3 a gallon across much of the nation by Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, new technology has sent the state's pump testers into overdrive.

A handful of workers are charged with checking the accuracy and quality of the state's 100,000 gas pumps, something they used to do with handheld containers. They could test about 200 pumps a day using those devices, said Stacy Boshell, who heads the state Agriculture and Industries Weights & Measures division.

In April, the department bought $18,000, high-tech testing trailers for each of their five field workers, and predicted the equipment would double the number of pumps they could cover each day.

They were wrong. Testers now can check nearly 800 pumps a day and with more accurate results.

"We were amazed," Deputy Commissioner Brett Hall said. "We thought maybe they'd become twice as efficient and it actually worked out a lot better. One person can go out and do the work of four people. It takes so much less time to go out and test a gas station."

It's part of the department's push toward using more training and better technology to do more work with fewer people.

Hall said the department has had to cut 100 people since 2011 as it operates under a slimmer budget amid state belt-tightening. The priority, he said, is on protecting the integrity of plant, meat and food safety inspections.

"We've cross-trained a lot of our inspectors, so those people are doing two jobs," he said.

The department used to have 25 gas pump testers. That fell to five by this spring. The Weights & Measures Division has since hired a sixth field tester, Hall said.

"You give them the tools to become more efficient, and we're working on that," he said. "It's a struggle."

In some cases, they've had help.

The department used a $1.5 million grant from BP to radically upgrade the seafood testing equipment in its food safety lab last year. And state agencies joined forces — and resources — to form a new rural crime investigation unit this year after cutbacks forced the Department of Agriculture and Industries to disband a similar unit two years ago.

Hall said the department will end 2013 with about a $5 million budget surplus. Long-delayed air conditioning and roof repairs are underway at the department's 1971 building in Montgomery, and there may be more technology on the way to help its field workers be more efficient.

"We're going to be investing more and more in technology to upgrade their capabilities, because a lot of those people we had in the field were filling out paper forms in triplicate and handing those in," Hall said. "The different numbers of processes they were going through to handle that paper is so expensive, so that requires more people. Since we don't have the people, we have to work smarter."

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Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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