Does Exxon Really Need The State's Help?

SAY WHAT?

May 05, 1991|By Chris Kaltenbach

With friends like these. . . .

Jim Munroe has this problem: Basically, he's being railroaded out of town. And no one wants to help him, certainly not a state government I always thought -- silly me -- was concerned with things like justice and at least borderline fair play.

Munroe runs a gas station at the corner of Jumpers Hole Road and Ritchie Highway.

He used to run a second station, at the corner ofJumpers Hole and Mountain roads, until the good folks at Exxon nearly quadrupled his rent back in February.

So he gave up on that one to concentrate on his other Exxon, one of four gas stations involved in a no-holds barred price war at that busy Pasadena intersection.

The good folks at Exxon, though, seem determined to ensure Munroe goes belly-up. And the folks at the state comptroller's office seem determined to help the cause along.

Munroe says Exxon refuses to deliver him gas, despite his repeated telephone orders. Last week, he read in this newspaper that Exxon plans to terminate its franchise agreement with him as of July 15, claiming non-payment of bills.

The bad blood between Exxon and Munroe go way back. When he took control of the Mountain Road station in June 1986, he says, an Exxon representative made an oral agreement to spruce up the station by modernizing it and installing a convenience mart.

Unfortunately, Munroe then went ahead and signed a contract stating the company had no obligationto carry through on that promise -- or, for that matter, any oral agreement.

True to its written word, the company never did.

Laterin 1986, Munroe says, he called Exxon to complain that his underground tanks at the Mountain Road station were leaking. Company officials, he says, insisted that wasn't possible.

So Munroe called the state, which came out, performed an inspection and promptly shut him down because his tanks were leaking. The necessary repairs and clean-up,Jim says, cost Exxon lots of money.

Exxon officials refuse to comment on their dispute with Munroe.

Earlier this year, after Exxon took steps to have the Ritchie Highway station declared bankrupt, Munroe de-branded and started selling non-Exxon gasoline -- a prefectly legal move, provided he marked the pumps accordingly.

Which is where our friends from the state come in.

You almost expect bozo behavior from Exxon. This, after all, is a company that not only was responsible for the biggest environmental disaster in this nation's history, but which -- since that fateful day when it proved, on a heretofore undreamed-of scale, that oil and water don't mix -- has given new meaning to the word "chutzpah."

(My favorite was the full-page newspaper ad Exxon officials took out telling people not to bother boycotting their stations, since the only people they'd be hurting were the franchise operators.)

But shortly after Munroe de-branded, an official of the state comptroller's Department of Fuel Tax Inspection and Testing told Exxon -- he never told Jim -- that the gasoline was not properly labeled.

Which is interesting, since an inspector fromthe office apparently was present when Munroe covered the 87- and 89-octane pumps with large signs reading "Not an Exxon Product."

On March 9, Exxon raised the rent on the Mountain Road station from $1,009 to $4,000 a month. Munroe appealed to the comptroller's office forhelp.

Enter Arthur Price, of the aforementioned Department of Fuel Tax Inspection and Testing. His job is to keep tabs on the sale of gas; part of that occasionally involves mediating disputes between gas companies and their franchises.

Arthur seems to have some funky ideas on real estate.

Exxon, Arthur said last week, "convinced me that the decision to raise the rent was based on a fair market value for the property."

Excuse me?

In the midst of a recession, at atime when property values are essentially stagnating, the value of alittle parcel at the northeast corner of Jumpers Hole Road and Ritchie Highway nearly quadrupled in value? Arthur thinks so. Arthur also thinks it's OK for Exxon simply to squeeze Jim Munroe out of the gas station business.

"It's nice to argue with the boss," said this compassionate public servant, "but at some point you have to back off and acknowledge he's the boss or else go into business for yourself."

Some mediation.

Jim Munroe is no saint. Gasoline distributors, as well as some of his fellow dealers, have described him as a rebel and a crybaby.

Certainly there's bad blood between him and Exxon. Maybe he has a bad attitude.

So scratch him off your Christmas card list. Take back that dinner invitation. Start a club and don't ask him to join.

But don't do everything possible to take away his livelihood.

What Exxon, with an assist from the comptroller's office of the state of Maryland, is doing to Jim Munroe may be perfectly legal.

But that doesn't make it right.

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