The sulfur-smelling devil in the details of Auburn’s proposal to add residents to its oil purchasing contract was the brief timeframe. There wasn’t enough time to sell skeptical oil dealers on the program and quell their fears.

For the plan to have worked, oil dealers would have either had to accept the risks (customer creditworthiness, equipment upkeep) or create stipulations for Auburn’s customer pool in order to reduce their exposure to liability.

Such dealing needed more time. The fast turnaround in Auburn – about a week from announcement to sign-up to bidding – never let the plan evolve from idea to practice.

Without the details worked out, the dealers had little enticement to accept the city’s terms and extend a competitive oil price. This is why the only available price quoted for Auburn, $4.70 gallon, was higher than expected.

This was market price, plus a hefty premium to insure the dealer against unforeseen losses.

With more time, negotiation between the city and oil dealers could have resulted in a stronger program for resident enrollees. Success needed open cooperation between the city and a vendor, not one side forcing the other’s hand.

The one-way nature of Auburn’s plan also contributed to its downfall. Next year, dealers should be courted.

What also becomes clear, now, is government (on any level) cannot force the price of fuel downward. What government can do – like reducing or suspending taxes, ending the filling of reserves, or tightening market regulations – are only incremental benefits.

Until the basic economics of petroleum pricing are corralled – increasing demand, unreliable suppliers, a weakened dollar – the consternation crossing the countenances of concerned consumers will only continue.

These are the stark facts facing Maine. Spiraling heating fuel prices on the consumer level are uncontrollable. There are few other options than simply, sadly, paying full price. Auburn’s failed plan, however, is still one of them.

It just needs more time, and perhaps less Auburn.

It is commonplace for consumers and businesses to group, and be grouped, to enhance their buying power. Credit unions are cooperatives. Lobstermen join cooperatives to purchase fuel and bait. There are electricity cooperatives operating in some of Maine’s islands and northern regions.

Auburn’s government tried to coalesce residents into a buying cooperative underneath the city. It didn’t work, but this notion of residents uniting to increase their attractiveness and competitive stance with oil dealers is still viable.

Again, timing might be a problem. But consumers are looking at the spiraling prices of petroleum products with desperation, after all. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Group buys are worth a shot.


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