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HOT SPRINGS - Right now, this is a BYOF town.

As in bring your own fuel - enough, at least, to get you to the nearest operating pump, which is 20 miles away in Plains.

Since late last week, Hot Springs has been without a retailer selling gas and diesel.

And the town of 550 people only had one to begin with.

The Y Quik Stop is still open, but there's been no fuel for it to sell from its pumps.

"We can't even buy gas for our lawnmowers," said one woman, noting that local farmers, ranchers and truckers are in an even bigger pinch than drivers looking to fill up their tanks.

It goes even further, said Manford Tempero, who owns the Y Quik Stop with his wife, Marvel.

"The school depends on us, the state road department depends on us, the Flathead Irrigation Project depends on us, Mission Valley Power depends on us," Tempero said Tuesday. "Now they're all S.O.L. other than going to Plains."

The problem, although rare, is not new.

But the timing could hardly have been worse.

***

There have been a handful of times in the 17 years since they started the small-town business - half a dozen, Tempero estimated - that "Sorry, no fuel" signs have had to be taped to the pumps.

But they always came down in a day or two when new supplies could be paid for and delivered.

This time, however, the signs went up just before the start of Memorial Day weekend.

And that's compounded everything.

"As gas prices escalated and margins grew slimmer, it's been harder and harder to make our obligation with the fuel company (City Service Valcon) that supplies us," Tempero explained.

He and Marvel have been working hard to find a solution, but ultimately, when - or if - that happens isn't something they can control, he said.

"We've got some things in the works to try to get some fuel in, possibly in a day or two," Tempero said.

***

The problem began, he admitted, when they mistakenly ordered fuel the same day an electronic funds transfer came due.

"Unless you're square with the distributor, they will not bring you fuel," Tempero said. "If the due date had been one day later, they would have brought it."

The business makes little profit on the fuel, he said. It's more of a way to get people to stop, and hopefully spend money in the convenience store, café or lounge where a profit can be turned.

"There may be a misconception when you hand me a $100 bill, most of it to pay for a tank of gas," Tempero said. "Out of that same $100, I might get 50 cents of it."

Percentages determine profit on other retail items, Tempero explained, but "with gas it's so many cents a gallon. When the price approaches $4 a gallon and you're making a 3-cent margin ... "

Well, that's when credit card purchases come into play.

For one thing, Tempero said point-of-service fees charged by credit card companies can cost a retailer as much as 9 cents per gallon.

"You can go backwards 5 or 6 cents on that gallon," he said.

It can also take time for that credit to cycle back into the business's account - and if the credit's not yet there, then you need the cash to order more fuel.

"It can make a $20,000 to $30,000 difference on your invoice, just because of the credit cards," Tempero said.

And that's what happened last week. When the Y Quik Stop ordered more fuel a couple of days too early, Tempero said, there was an electronic funds transfer due of $23,000.

"We were not able to pay that," he said.

"It all has to work right, or you'll run out of fuel if you don't have the credit card credits to buy more," Tempero said.

Then, to run out just a couple of days before the long Memorial Day weekend - well, now there's been no fuel purchases, whether by cash or credit, for several days, and no credit cycling back.

"If the distributor had found a way to bring me fuel, I would have owed them less money today than I do," Tempero said.

Tempero, who is 67, moved to Hot Springs from Heron in 1959 and ran both post-and-pole and small-engine repair businesses here before opening the Y Quik Stop 17 years ago.

The property had housed a gas station since the 1950s, but no gas had been sold from there for 15 years when he and Marvel purchased it, and Tempero said the property was covered in weeds.

The Y Quik Stop - where a gallon of gas went for $3.79 until the tank ran dry last week - has been Hot Springs' lone fuel retailer for approximately five years. The Temperos have had it for sale for about a year and a half, but "it's not a great market to sell things right now," he noted.

"I am deeply sorry for any and all inconvenience this has caused the community," Tempero said. "The timing of this, around Memorial Day, is what really got us."

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