Wednesday, September 22, 2004
On this day:

Price Gouging Patrol

Attorney General Troy King says his office has received over 100 complaints about price-gouging along Alabama's devastated Gulf Coast - "everything from people raising prices of ice, hotel rooms, plywood and generators." This article from the Mobile Press-Register has more details. Here are some snippets:

"Alabama's law against 'unconscionable pricing' kicks in when the governor declares an official state of emergency. At that time, it is illegal for anyone to sell or rent items at prices 25 percent higher than average during the last month. There is an exception if the increased cost can be justified.

Penalties start at fines of $1,000 per violation. Persistent offenders may be barred from doing business in Alabama.

...Most of the price-gouging complaints have been about water, gasoline, ice, hotel rooms and batteries, and many of the complaints have been levied against established merchants.

Fairhope Police Chief Chris Browning said officers ran one man from Texas out of town after hearing reports that he was selling generators well above their list value. Daphne Police Chief David Carpenter said the man later came to Daphne, and was issued a ticket for operating without a business license. Carpenter said he is waiting to see if the man will be charged with price gouging, as well.

...Atmore Mayor Howard Shell on Monday said he had wanted to arrest a couple of people who were trying to 'scalp' residents next week. He said one contractor tried to charge $5,000 to take one tree off a house. 'I know that's a little unreasonable,' Shell said.

...(Tony Costaldo, a special agent with the Attorney General's Office) pulled over near Baldwin County 10 to talk to a crew from Langfitt Construction, out of Ocean Springs, Miss. After making sure they had all their credentials, he started hearing gripes from them about $2-a-gallon diesel gasoline and private landfills charging high dumping fees.

Now, all of these efforts to protect vulnerable storm victims are well-intentioned. Vigilance against fraud and other crimes should be encouraged. But, it is wrong to draw an anaogy between "unconscionable pricing" and criminal activity.

Politicians in this state need to pause for a reality check. How likely is it that someone will drive all the way to coastal Alabama from Texas with a truckload of generators in order to sell them at "list value"? Do we really want to discourage people like this fellow from Texas from bringing in needed supplies?

You'd be hard-pressed to find a generator anywhere within 500 miles of the beach right now. The Huntsville Times talked to managers of Costco, Home Depot, and KC's Powersports here in Huntsville yesterday. All of them have sold out of generators. The manager at KC's said that he drove to Kansas City last week "to restock with about 45 generators." Only two were left after the weekend. Home Depot sold out before the hurricane hit, and the manager there only half-jokingly says, "The closest Home Depot with generators now is probably Alaska."

The simple fact is that residents of South Alabama need more trucks of supplies coming in, not less. The best way to help that happen is to allow prices to adjust to local market conditions. Whether the goods are delivered by charitable people in search of salvation or by entrepreneurs in search of profit should not be the state's concern.

Meanwhile, guess who is providing "rations" of ice, water, food, and...ummm...generators while the "price-gougers" are being driven out? Yup, our state and federal governments are on the case:

"...pockets of rural Alabama began receiving their first rations of ice, water and food

...Strife in the inland counties extended to food, ice and water distribution, though officials in Conecuh, Monroe, Escambia and Choctaw counties said Tuesday that relief had finally arrived after days of waiting.

There are problems, most agreed, in getting supplies to the most remote areas in those counties because of the lack of communication and a fuel shortage. Some residents said people in places such as Burnt Corn in Conecuh County were getting desperate for food.

Statewide, the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Tuesday coordinated deliveryof 57 truckloads of ice, 48 truckloads of water and 38 truckloads of MREs, an acronym for meals ready to eat, a pre-packaged ration that does not require refrigeration.

FEMA worked with state officials to bring in more generators, including a shipment Tuesday slated mostly for Monroe and Clarke counties. Jeff Emerson, press secretary to Gov. Bob Riley, said everyone who asked for a generator for a critical need has received one. Scott Hughes, spokesman for the state environmental agency, said all water treatment plants that had been off line either had power restored or received generators by late Tuesday afternoon."

It's enough to make a grown man vote Libertarian.