Though by the start of this week, the state Attorney General’s office and Governor Maggie Hassan were confident in the ability of Fred Fuller Oil and Propane Co., Inc. to meet its customers’ home heating needs, it has been a difficult season for Fuller customers.
While reports poured in during the frigid days last week of homeowners running low on heating oil, getting no response from Fuller, and even buying five gallon tanks of diesel to fill their home heating tanks, just as hard hit were local municipalities and school districts that had locked in prices with Fuller before the season began.
In response to complaints last week, Hassan and the Attorney General’s office set up an emergency hotline for residents affected by delivery problems. It was established on Tuesday, Jan. 7, and ran until Sunday, Jan. 12. Over that period, it fielded calls from 1,850 individuals.
The Attorney General’s office has been collecting customer complaints and continues to review the circumstances, said Acting Attorney General James Boffetti. By the start of the week the calls had stopped coming to the hotline and the state was comfortable that the crisis had gone out of the slow deliveries.
According to Hassan’s office, emergency management personnel followed up with those who called to say they were without heat to make sure they had received oil. The hotline was run by state employees; its costs mostly entail overtime pay.
“Hopefully he’s (Fred Fuller) learned some hard lessons about his business model. Now it’s up to Fuller to regain the trust of his customers, and I hope he can do that,” said Boffetti. “We can’t go through this again.”
Maintenance directors and facilities managers at a number of school districts in the area had been having trouble getting deliveries since Christmas and even before, with more than one employee spending New Year’s Day watching the 10,000 gallon tanks to make sure they didn’t get down to their last drop.
George Stokinger, business administrator for the Timberlane Regional School District and the Hampstead School District, said many employee hours were used for the last couple of weeks over the heating situation. All Hampstead schools, and in the Timberlane district all elementary schools outside of Plaistow, use heating oil.
The schools each have 10,000-gallon tanks, but Stokinger explained that for weeks, after calling numerous times for fuel, the schools would get relatively tiny deliveries from Fuller, of maybe 1,000 gallons. At usage rates of 200 gallons a day, that didn’t go far.
“If they delivered, we’d get 1,000 gallons or less. And this after many calls and broken promises,” said Stokinger.
The issues started in earnest for Timberlane and Hampstead over the Christmas break, with a variety of excuses given by the oil company for lack of delivery.
To make sure the schools didn’t run out, Stokinger began working with Suburban Propane, which he termed very responsive, bringing thousands of gallons to the schools, compared to the small amounts Fuller was delivering.
Timberlane and Hampstead locked in a low price with Fuller this season.
“There’s been a lot of wasted time on our part, a lot of frustration,” Stokinger said.
Londonderry came out unscathed in the oil delivery matter largely because of pre-planning and decisions to switch to natural gas and propane for municipal buildings.
The buildings under the watch of the town’s administrative support coordinator Steve Cotton are all propane or gas.
Though the Londonderry school district locked in a bid with Fuller for oil this year, and has for several years, it had no problems because of extra fuel kept on hand. According to director of buildings and grounds Chuck Zappala, when the district decided years back to convert many of the schools away from fuel oil, it kept a 12,000-gallon tank at the middle school to stockpile extra fuel for emergencies and to help get the best price on oil, allowing the district to wait for the slow season.
Only South Elementary School uses fuel oil, and utilizes a 10,000-gallon tank. When Zappala heard that Fuller was having issues with supply he let the company know not to worry about the school and to take care of residential customers first. In the meantime he called a transport company to haul fuel from the middle school to South.
Zappala had positive comments about Fuller’s service, however, as for years the district had dealt successfully with the company, knowing many of its employees on a first name basis.
“They’ve always been very prompt,” said Zappala. “I have nothing bad to say about them.”
The Town of Derry and the Derry Cooperative School District team up to get low prices on oil each season, and while disasters caused by low fuel were averted, the last couple weeks were a stressful time as tanks dipped low.
Derry Director of Public Works Mike Fowler said the town fared better than the school district, in part because its larger buildings like the municipal center, library and police station run on natural gas. While a couple of the town’s smaller buildings were low on fuel, none ran out, explained Fowler. “We’re OK right now, but we’ll continue to monitor it. It’s been a tough winter,” said Fowler.
Jane Simard, Derry school district business administrator, said she was forced to get emergency fill-ups from Dead River Co. to make sure her buildings didn’t freeze.
The schools came very close to running out of fuel, said Simard, despite multiple calls a day to Fuller.
Simard said the problems she’s seeing started last fall, but even as early as last year she noted smaller amounts being delivered. Prior to that the relationship was positive.
All but two schools in the district use fuel oil.
“It’s definitely been a lot of aggravation and wasted employee time,” said Simard. “It’s very frustrating. It’s an unacceptable business practice.” Simard also noted concerns with running tanks low and pulling up any detritus at the bottom could cause issues with equipment down the line.
On New Year’s day Simard said she was forced to set up an account with Dead River, as district employees were called out from their homes to make sure the tanks didn’t empty. Dead River came out that day to fill the tanks. Prior to that the district was getting 500 to 1,000 gallon deliveries in tanks at least 10 times that size.
While the district was confident in its ability to keep their schools functioning, Simard noted that she’d be looking at what her options are with Fuller in the future. Though the town and district locked in fuel at $3.09 a gallon for the season, they were forced to go outside that deal at about 30 cents extra per gallon.
In coming days the state will be looking to see whether the oil company overstepped the law in two primary areas whether it displayed unfair or deceptive practices as outlined by the Consumer Protection Act and whether it abided by the state law governing pre-buy contracts. Boffetti stated that his office is concerned with those who have pre-buy contracts with Fuller. Though conceding that the law governing such contracts is “grossly inadequate,” Boffetti said his office will make sure that Fuller is compliant.
Boffetti said the state had a responsibility for the health and safety of its citizens, and lack of oil deliveries posed a concern on both fronts.
“It creates a public safety issue,” stated Boffetti.
Representation from Fred Fuller Oil did not return repeated calls for comment for this story.