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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Taxpayers should be repaid in Fuller

Telegraph Editorial

It’s a given that, when a hiker gets lost in the mountains of New Hampshire, the state’s rescue apparatus responds immediately, no questions asked. It’s a life-threatening situation that requires swift action and expertise.

New Hampshire Fish & Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and private rescue groups pull out all of the stops to come to the aid of hikers who need assistance. New Hampshire law allows someone to be billed afterward if they are found to be negligent, but that’s an issue that gets dealt with after the fact, as it should. When life hangs in the balance and government is in a position to help, help shows up. It’s just the way it works, and the way it should. ...

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It’s a given that, when a hiker gets lost in the mountains of New Hampshire, the state’s rescue apparatus responds immediately, no questions asked. It’s a life-threatening situation that requires swift action and expertise.

New Hampshire Fish & Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and private rescue groups pull out all of the stops to come to the aid of hikers who need assistance. New Hampshire law allows someone to be billed afterward if they are found to be negligent, but that’s an issue that gets dealt with after the fact, as it should. When life hangs in the balance and government is in a position to help, help shows up. It’s just the way it works, and the way it should.

So it was last week when customers of the Fred Fuller Oil & Propane Company found their oil tanks nearly empty during a severe cold snap. When daytime temperatures struggled to climb above zero and nighttime lows and winds combined to produce life-threatening conditions, the state acted properly and swiftly to make sure people did not run out of oil.

Over the course of five days, more than 1,800 Fred Fuller Oil customers called a 24-hour state hotline established by Gov. Maggie Hassan in the wake of news reports about delivery problems with the company. Operators took information from customers and worked with the company to schedule deliveries.

Why the company was missing deliveries – even customers who were on automatic delivery got skipped – was very much a secondary concern while safety was at issue. What was important was getting the job done and making sure people didn’t freeze to death. Hassan and those who staffed the hotline deserve credit for managing the crisis.

It remains to be seen whether Fuller’s delivery problems are a thing of the past, or if they will repeat themselves going forward. Others in the oil business say there was no industry shortage that would explain the missed deliveries, so it seems clear that the problem was specific to the Hudson-based company.

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said no determination has been made about whether the state will charge Fuller for the costs of the hotline operation, but we think passing those costs along to the company is reasonable and fair.

The state essentially set up a satellite Fred Fuller Oil office and used state workers to provide customer service for several days in the absence of the company’s ability to do so itself. In other words, taxpayers subsidized the company’s operations.

Failure to recover those costs would send the altogether wrong message that the state will step in to provide relief from any moral hazard a business may face. Giving Fuller a free ride says that – whether the problem is bad luck, inclement weather, cash flow or just poor business practices – the state will ride to the rescue, just so long as an issue of public safety hangs in the balance.

Allowing businesses to get a state bailout at no price – whether in the form of money or manpower – is a policy that will only encourage others to act recklessly by shielding them from the influence of market forces.

In other words, it has a federal-government-meets-Wall-Street feel to it.

It’s also the kind of thing to which Fuller competitors – and any other business, for that matter – can rightfully ask with their hand out when times get hard for them, “Hey, what about us?”

Now that Fuller is out of the woods – at least for now – it’s time to settle up, just as we would with a lost hiker in the North Country.