Free gas, courtesy of Pinellas County

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Property taxes got you down? Gas prices draining your wallet? What if I told you there was free gas at 23 points all across Pinellas County where you could drive in, fill up and peel out without paying a dime?

That's what a July internal audit of Pinellas County's fleet management department found. On four different occasions, an audit division staff member entered secured and unsecured sites and filled up his personal car without being challenged by the county staff who run the distribution sites.

"The ease at which we were able to obtain gas for our personal cars was shocking to me and disturbing that anyone could walk in and put gas without being questioned," says Robert Melton, chief deputy director of the internal audit division. "It was just an amazing lack of concern for the county's fuel."

"In one case, the gate was locked and a sheriff's deputy opened up the door and went in," Melton shares, "and we just followed him right in to the grounds and filled up our vehicle."

In some instances, auditors found the locks that normally secure pumps were missing or left on the correct combination.

"We have less than half of 1 percent of fuel loss, and that's with the honor system," defends Fleet Management Director Keith Grant.

What's more, he says, the county has recently put the kibosh on free gas-guzzlers by installing surveillance cameras and shutting down pumps until an employee receives authorization.

Of course, those are the changes that were supposed to be enacted back in 2002, when Melton first brought up the lack of security at county fuel sites. Melton says he hadn't heard anything about the improvements Grant describes.

Grant says the sites will be completely theft-free by December, when the county installs an $800,000 fuel automation system that will require security codes and sensors to dispense gas from county-owned pumps.

"Obviously, in Pinellas County, we're very heavy into security," he says.

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