Covering Frankfort

Apr 3, 2013 3:57 PM

State To Shutter Costly Fuel Testing Lab

FRANKFORT (AP) - Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said Wednesday that he will shutter a $3 million gasoline and pesticide testing lab that was built under his predecessor Richie Farmer, saying it "hemorrhaged" taxpayer dollars.

Comer said the lab was pitched in 2008 as a way to make money for Kentucky by testing gasoline for surrounding states and businesses. But Comer said the lab failed to generate outside business. In fact, he said it failed to efficiently handle the number of tests collected in Kentucky and conducted only a few pesticide tests.

"I can see where it would seem like it was a good idea," Comer told reporters at a news conference. "But there was never a business plan. There was never any business development. It was just a pie-in-the sky idea that was funded through the capital projects and agency funds."

Under state law, the agriculture department enforces gas quality standards. Each year it inspects all fuel pumps to ensure they're pumping a full gallon of gas. It also tests the quality of gas, such as its octane rating, from random samples taken from gas stations. Customer complaints also are investigated.

Gas quality is not a big problem in Kentucky, which penalizes less than 20 gas sellers each year, according to Larry Cox, deputy agriculture commissioner.

The state is already contracting with a private company in Texas to test the random samples. The agriculture department also is in early discussions with the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture and the Center for Applied Energy Research to possibly operate the testing program.

The lab cost the state about $900,000 in operating costs in 2011. Its closure will eventually save taxpayers about $600,000 a year once the state stops leasing the building that houses the lab, Comer said.

Last month, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission charged Farmer, a onetime college basketball star at the University of Kentucky, with 42 ethics violations for misusing state funds and state employees during his time as commissioner, which ended in 2011. Farmer's lawyer denies all charges.

Last year, Kentucky's auditor examined the agriculture department's finances under Farmer. Among its findings was that the lab tested only about 3,800 fuel samples - far short of the 20,000 samples it was projected to test each year.

Farmer's attorney, J. Guthrie True, did not return a phone message left by The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, True told the AP that Farmer acted appropriately and ethically during his eight-year stint as agriculture commissioner.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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